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Chan-Mo Park, chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, is hoping the United States will lift a ban on travel to North Korea.

Emily Petersen

Release of three Americans by North Korea bolsters hopes for academic diplomacy

The release of three Americans by North Korea is being welcomed in the United States. Leaders of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in North Korea also see the move as good news, and are hoping it might ultimately lead to the end of a travel ban that has prevented its U.S. instructors from teaching classes.

Two of the detainees were on the PUST faculty. Agricultural expert Hak-song Kim managed an experimental farm for PUST while Sang-duk "Tony" Kim taught accounting. Both were arrested in the spring of 2017, apparently for what were deemed “hostile acts” toward North Korea. The third detainee, Dong-chul Kim, who is not associated with PUST, has been imprisoned since October 2015.

Opened in 2010 as North Korea's first privately funded university (and largely supported by evangelical Christians), PUST has endeavored to contribute to North Korean society while easing tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world. The arrest of the two PUST faculty members was just the start of a bad year for the university. In response to North Korea's missile tests and threats, last September the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump banned travel to North Korea by all U.S. citizens. That left the 40 or so PUST faculty and lecturers who are U.S. citizens scrambling to leave the country or unable to return to Pyongyang after the summer break.

About 30 courses that had been taught by U.S. citizens during the fall 2017 semester were taken over by North Koreans, Chan-Mo Park, a computer scientist and PUST chancellor, tells ScienceInsider. Some of the new instructors were PUST graduates, others were professors at other North Korean universities. For the spring semester, a number of new European academics joined the faculty.

"PUST faculty members [who are] U.S. citizens are still barred from traveling to North Korea as of now," Park says. “But we have very high hopes that because these three U.S. citizens have been released the U.S. government will remove that travel ban.” Hopefully lifting the ban will not only benefit PUST, but also allow Americans involved in humanitarian activities to return to North Korea, he says.

“It all depends on the meeting between Trump and Kim [Jong-un, North Korea’s leader],” Park says. “If the meeting goes smoothly and successfully,” he says, U.S. citizens could once again be headed for PUST’s classrooms and laboratories.