North Korean students impress Nobel laureates

The Nation
May 8, 2016

Academic visitors amazed by knowledge and fluency in English

What happened at the Kim Il-sung University on Monday should provide an interesting glimpse into one aspect of North Korea that has rarely been seen by outsiders before.

The fact that three Nobel laureates were able to travel to Pyongyang and make their presentation before more than 500 students and professors of the country's oldest and most prestigious university was already remarkable enough given the many sanctions against the regime of President Kim Jong-un

But it was the question and answer session that really caught the attention of the visitors, even leading one of the Nobel laureates say "amazing" when asked how he felt about the interaction with the students.

"It was so amazing to see how they interacted and the level of their knowledge of the outside world," said Prof Aaron Ciechanover from Israel who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2004.

What particularly struck the foreign visitors was the fluency in English that many of the students had when they stood up to ask questions. Some spoke with a perfect American accent and engaged speakers with follow-up questions and observations.

Of course, the event was designed to be purely academic and void of any political content. This was the first day of the five-day dialogue, officially known as the International Academic Exchange for Peace and Development held by the Korean National Peace Committee and the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF). After Kim Il-sung University, the event was to move on to two other universities in Pyongyang where similar interaction is to take place.

Recalling how he almost became a professional billiards players and his early interest in chemistry before becoming a molecular biologist, Dr Richard J Roberts, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, encouraged the students to find their own path and change their fields in order to pursue their dreams. "Don't listen to adults," he advised.

This is one piece of advice that will certainly pose a challenge in a society where every aspect of life is centrally dictated.

The Nobel laureate was later bombarded with questions from the students ranging from tips on time management and how he was able to do things his own way to how he avoided doing things he did not like and when he was happiest.

Ciechanover drew occasional laughter with his lively presentation on the era of "personalised medicine" when technology has developed enough to sequence individual genomes so it is possible to tailor treatment for specific patients.

Nothing political

Toward the end of the speech a picture of Angelina Jolie appeared on his slideshow presentation. Considering the fact that the United States is regarded by North Korea as its "No1 enemy", having the photograph of one Hollywood's most famous celebrities displayed right in the middle of Kim Il-sung University might have come as a surprise to many.

But there was nothing political about it. The Israeli physician only wanted to highlight how she has helped boost awareness of breast cancer after she decided to have both her breasts removed upon discovering that she carried a mutated gene, which dramatically increased the chance of her getting the potentially fatal disease.

"Yes, of course we know her. She was an actress that had breast surgery," said one student later.

Unlike the mostly stiff and reticent North Koreans that journalists accompanying the Nobel laureates encountered at various other spots in Pyongyang, students at the Kim Il-sung University were forthcoming and eloquent.

"We are glad that we had this dialogue with the Nobel Laureates. It's a great contribution to our knowledge," said one girl student who is studying science, admitting that she was inspired by what she had heard at the forum.

Another student said she hoped the forum would help pave the way for further dialogue that contributes to peace, and said she supported the idea of having American professors and students interacting with their Korean counterparts.

The students said they had access to the Internet to seek academic information and do research. When asked about the international sanctions that have been slapped on North Korea due to its nuclear and missile tests, one student said the international community failed to understand her country. "They should come and see the real situation here for themselves," she said.

North Korea is a centrally-planned economy where the state covers all basic necessities, including education. "We are a happy society," the student said as she expressed full support for the system.