Nobel laureates tread new path to peace with N Korea

The Nation
April 30, 2016

Through dialogue, foundation aims to promote academic exchange and cooperation

Even with crisis deepening in the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's nuclear and missile tests and subsequent international sanctions, "peace" will be on the agenda next week when a group of Nobel laureates sit down for a rare dialogue in Pyongyang with representatives from the country's academic world.

The visit to Pyongyang by three Nobel laureates in economics, medicine and chemistry from Norway, Israel and the United Kingdom, is organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF) and the Korean National Peace Committee with the aim of establishing a forum for academic exchange and cooperation.

The group will meet with professors and students of North Korea's leading educational institutions, including Kim Il Sung University, for what is described as non-political discussion on a wide range of academic issues, including science and technology. The group will be joined by Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, chairman of the advisory board of IPF.

What is certain is that despite the ongoing confrontation between North Korea and the international community, the Nobel laureates have no intention of engaging in political debate or making any political statements during the dialogue. "But peace can be talked about through science, and education can be a basis for peace," said Uwe Morawetz, founding chairman of IPF. The visit will be part of the so-called Bridges - Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace event series organised by IPF.

During his visit to Pyongyang last October, Prince Alfred urged the North Korean side to be "open and frank" in their exchange next week. But there are certainly questions as to how open and frank the Korean professors and students can be given the strict control on freedom of expression in what is often described as "the hermit kingdom".

However, preparatory discussions Prince Alfred had with a group of professors and students at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang in October shed light on what the coming event might look like. Prince Alfred described the discussions as "a little bit of a rehearsal" for next week's dialogue.

According to excerpts from the discussions made available to The Nation, the October exchange was largely academic and stayed clear of anything political. However, they provide a good glimpse into how North Korea's academia views the role of education in their society. Of course, in a country as authoritarian as North Korea, the academic world and politics can hardly be separated.

Thae Hyong-chol, minister of higher education and president of Kim Il Sung University, made it clear from the start in his talk with Prince Alfred that "ideological transformation" is the ultimate goal of North Korea's education system. He said such transformation "makes the person a patriot or [when missing] a traitor who betrays the country".

"Teaching students and people what they can do for the country is the most important thing in the education at our university. We educate students as patriots of the country," the minister said, citing as role models the late leaders Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il.

Prince Alfred then posed what sounded like a philosophical question. "When entering puberty most human beings disconnect from role models and become critical of their parents and of all kind of authority. How do you handle this challenge in your model?"

Thae's answer left no doubt as to the shared belief in the North Korean academia: As long as the "Great Leaders" serve as role models, young North Koreans will be inspired by their "greatness" and "devotion" to serve the country. "They will follow that role model and orientation and work hard to achieve that goal," he said.

Prince Alfred later spoke to Kim Il Sung University professors, urging them to have an "open and frank conversation and exchange" with the Nobel laureates who he said were demonstrating "a certain courage" in defying pressure from their governments, who were opposed to the event.

One professor responded by saying that North Korea was a "very open country" that wants to develop relations with other nations. "We try to increase trade with ... other countries, investment and other activities, and maybe the events can help with that," he said.

Prince Alfred also had a session with students of Kim Il Sung University. Excerpts from the conversation indicate an interactive session during which students inquired about the university system in Europe and the activities of IPF while disclosing expectations of their meeting with the Nobel laureates.

There was silence when Prince Alfred asked whether their university offers courses on conflict prevention or non-violent communication. But when he asked them for a definition of peace, they were more forthcoming.

"I think peace means sharing and making the world a better place. I mean sharing is caring," one student said, adding "I think most people in the world want peace, and there are only some people who like conflict. In our country everybody knows about peace, and we learn about peace all the time, but not in textbooks. ... We learn more about peace from our teachers, but we have no lectures about peace."

Besides Kim Il Sung University, the Nobel laureates will also hold workshops and seminars at North Korea's other leading education institutions, including Kim Chaek University of Technology and Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

"Listening and engaging with the young generation of the DPRK maybe a gateway to establish a dialogue which could contribute to the wider understanding beyond politics and power play," said Uwe of IPF, who has visited North Korea six times over the past two years to prepare for the dialogue.

Speaking to professors at Kim Il Sung University, Prince Alfred expressed hope that the dialogue would only be a first step. "We cannot immediately change the policy of the United States and Europe toward your country, but we can establish a dialogue on a small scale," he said.