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Why North Korea Closed Its Universities

Jul 15, 2011

Since its establishment in 1948, North Korea has been notoriously secretive in its carryings-on, often forcing political pundits to take their best guess at what's happening within its borders. Here's a puzzle to consider: why, on the last week of June, did the country announce they were closing their universities down for almost an entire year?

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By Eric Garneau

Pyongyang, North Korea universities

The Cited Reason

According to a June 27 decree from North Korean capital Pyongyang, all universities within the country have had their classes suspended until April of 2012. Exceptions have been made only for international students and those planning to graduate in the next few months.

As for the rest of North Korea's college-aged population, they've been sent to work on construction, agricultural or manufacturing projects for the duration of the shutdown. The students are now tasked with helping to build up their country's economy that, it's thought, took a hit thanks to some recent typhoons. According to state leader Kim Jong-il, North Korea will have become a 'great, prosperous and powerful nation' by 2012, which marks the 100th birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.

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Digging a Little Deeper

Some political minds have significantly different ideas regarding North Korea's student shutdown. Tokyo professor and North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura thinks Kim Jong-il may be taking steps to quash a revolution against his control before it's even begun. Shigemura suspects that Jong-il fears a repeat of Tunisia's recent political unrest in his land, and further thinks that such unrest could begin at the university level.

If Professor Shigemura's correct, Jong-il may be right to worry. Reports from Tunisia suggest that it was university students, armed with the tools of social media, who really jumpstarted the recent revolution, using sites like Twitter and Facebook to both organize amongst themselves and alert the rest of the world to the turbulent goings-on of their homeland. Although Internet access, especially to sites like those, is typically blocked in North Korea, there's a fair chance that if anyone could find a way to exploit whatever technology was available, college students could.

Professor Shigemura, adding credence to his argument, also reports that North Korea recently purchased anti-riot gear from China, including batons and tear gas; it's also upped the police presence around its capital. It seems as though Jong-il indeed may fear student mobilization, and he sees dispersing them to work with hands-on projects throughout the country as cutting the problem off at its head.

What's the Truth?

Perhaps this is a case where Occam's razor applies, and North Korea truly feels the best use for its college students is to rebuild an economy that's (maybe) in danger. However, in the absence of any kind of hard information, minds will wander. If Professor Shigemura is correct about Jong-il's true intentions, one must wonder if he's really dispersed revolutionary tension in his land, or if he's instead just delayed it.

While North Korean schools disperse, South Korea's have started using robots to teach.

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