The relationship between Western governments and North Korea has never been a particularly warm one. In the past couple of years, with a few of exceptions—Dennis Rodman’s high profile “friendship” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un comes to mind—North Korea has appeared as isolated from the West as ever. But recently, an unprecedented diplomatic exchange has quietly been occurring on Canada’s west coast. Since 2011, a handful of North Korean academics have annually travelled to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver as part of the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program, living and taking regular classes at the university for six months at a time. Details about the program are closely guarded, but the exchange raises new questions about the use of soft power and academic diplomacy in reducing tensions between the “hermit kingdom” and its detractors in the West. Can academic exchange spark productive dialogue between Canada and North Korea? Or does it undermine attempts to pressure North Korea into political and social change?
The academic program undertaken by the visiting North Korean professors is surprising in its normalcy. At UBC, the academics took standard undergraduate and graduate level courses in English, international trade, finance, and economics. According to the program’s founder, political scientist Kyung-Ae Park, few special allowances were made for the visitors—they lived in university dormitories and were assigned to do group work with regular UBC students. The academics also met with Canadian business leaders during “field trips” around Vancouver and Toronto and were given information on the workings of Canada’s free market economy.
Considering that Canada has not had official diplomatic relations with North Korea since the closing of their North Korean embassy in 2010, the academic partnership is an unexpected development in the Canada-North Korea relationship. The program’s role in Canadian foreign policy is not entirely clear. In a 2012 description of the program, Park explained her hope that it could help “North Koreans to improve the quality of life of their own people.” In other words, by sending its participants home with a greater understanding of economics and international trade, the program could aid North Korea in developing a viable economy and alleviating the poverty and starvation that has gripped its citizens since the early 1990s. Depending on one’s views about international diplomacy, this could be seen as an admirable aim—it aids the innocent North Korean citizens who are most affected by North Korea’s poor economic standing, and provides a sort of “carrot” that could help make North Korea more open to compromise in the future. But this goal seems at odds with the actions of the Canadian government, which has placed heavy sanctions on the dictatorial regime in hopes of inducing political change. If Canada wants to effectively punish or pressure North Korea using economic sanctions, it cannot simultaneously hand them the tools to build a vibrant economy in spite of these sanctions.
By sending its participants home with a greater understanding of economics and international trade, the program could aid North Korea in developing a viable economy and alleviating the poverty and starvation that has gripped its citizens since the early 1990s.
There is a chance that the academic exchange could introduce Canadian economic and social ideals to North Korea, liberalizing the country from within. Through the program, the visiting academics are informed about Canada’s capitalist economy and given a window into the political and social freedoms enjoyed by Canadians. In an ideal world, the North Korean professors would bring this information back to their classrooms at home. But it seems implausible that the North Korean government, known for the intensity of its censorship and propaganda practices, would allow the academic partnership to influence the beliefs of its citizens. More likely, the government selects professors to participate in the program who will not be won over by Western ideas and tightly controls what the participants share when they return to North Korea. The regime gains economic knowledge and insight into the West without the pesky liberal ideology.
Although the program is called an “academic exchange” there is no information to suggest Canadian academics have been invited to North Korea to parallel the UBC opportunity. It is difficult to see what Canada or UBC has gained from the program besides a fleeting hope that North Korea might warm to the West or change its unsavory political practices as a result. Has Canada been used by North Korea?
The Knowledge Partnership Program is a small-scale attempt at academic exchange. Whatever its impact—positive only to North Korea’s interests or mutually beneficial—it will probably alter very little in the bigger picture of the ongoing hostility between North Korea and the West. But the program is still worth thinking carefully about, if only because it could occur on a larger scale in the future. Is academic diplomacy valuable as a tool of international relations, even if it appears one-sided? Perhaps the UBC program should be celebrated simply for breaking through North Korea’s political isolation. But while North Korea remains antagonistic towards the West and extremely repressive of its citizens, the true benefits of academic exchange—the free swapping of ideas and open social interaction between people of different cultures—cannot be fully realized. And the incongruity between punishing North Korea with sanctions and embracing them through academic diplomacy makes Canada look indecisive and weak. Academic diplomacy is a pleasant and probably harmless idea, but real change in the dynamic between North Korea and the West will not be as easy as a few college courses.