North Korea's only private university has been learning to cope with a travel ban and sanctions imposed by the United States but could face an uncertain future if the restrictions continue, its president said Tuesday.
Yu-taik Chon, the Korean-American head of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), said he has been unable to go to North Korea since the travel ban took effect in September.
And the measure has also affected more than half the faculty and staff of the institution, which was jointly established by a South Korean foundation and North Korea's education ministry in 2010.
"When the ban was announced, (there was) trouble because we had planned for (the next) six months but suddenly no one could come in," Chon told a seminar here.
To fill the gap, some of the school's graduates and graduates of its Chinese sister school came to help teach. The coming spring semester will be better because the university has learned from its experiences of last semester and arranged to have about 70 percent of the necessary teaching staff.
The school, which conducts all of its classes in English, has also been hit by growing sanctions over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
"Our school is not a target of sanctions. We don't have any problem delivering the funds, but the problem is that the means of delivery, because all banks didn't want to cooperate with us, we had to use other means," Chon said. "If these sanctions and travel ban continue, then we cannot predict what's going to happen."
The sanctions have also limited supplies of food, fuel and electricity, but the North Koreans have lived under such conditions for such a long time that they haven't complained much, he said.
"All the projects designed to empower common people in North Korea, to make them innovators to lead their country ... our school has been very successful in bringing those students eager to develop for their own good and to improve their living conditions," Chon said. "Students are ... very dismayed because they don't understand what's going on. So we want to have this travel ban lifted, sanctions lifted, so we can continue school with the purpose we originally set."
The travel ban was imposed in the wake of the death of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who was detained in Pyongyang in 2016 for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster. He died last year shortly after being sent home in a coma.
Exceptions can be granted to professional journalists, Red Cross representatives and others with "compelling humanitarian" reasons or a travel request that is "in the national interest."
But the State Department has yet to grant permission to PUST faculty members.
"We're very careful and work very cooperatively with the State Department and other agencies to abide by the spirit of the sanctions and travel ban," Charles Sands III, graduate dean of the division of medical sciences, told the same event.
"We are moving forward. We haven't given up to establish a world class medical education program in (North Korea) that we hope will be part of promoting peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula," he said.
Since establishment, PUST has produced some 550 graduates and currently has a similar number of students enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate programs.
Upon graduation, the students, many of whom the North Korean government selects from elite families in and outside of Pyongyang, are employed by various universities and organizations as teachers, researchers and managers.
Some go abroad to continue their studies. Their education is fully funded by the school.
"Among these students are some of the future leaders of that country," Sands said. "We think we have a great opportunity to impact their way of thinking and give them a larger world view than they currently have."
But there are two subjects the foreign faculty do not talk about with their students: politics and religion.
"Those are two things we don't discuss with the students, and they don't discuss with us," Sands said.