North Korea

Heading across the Stalinist divide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


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Famine, gulags, and a mad leader who doesn't seem to care about his people is what most people picture when they think of North Korea.

But for pupils and staff at Li Po Chun United World College in Wu Kai Sha, the picture is much more complex.

As part of annual trips since 2005, school delegations have been in search of the human side of the world's last Stalinist outpost. The next group from the school heads to Pyongyang on Friday.

'With North Korea ... we often picture just [supreme leader] Kim Jong-il,' Arthur Chan Chun-yat, a pupil who visited North Korea last year, said. 'I will always remember that North Korea is a country of people, a country of individuals, a country of North Koreans, not just an evil, or so-called evil, regime.'

Over the years, Chan and other Li Po Chun pupils have seen a painstakingly slow but gradual opening up of North Koreans to foreigners.

Former school principal Stephen Codrington, who started the initiative, says locals would look away if foreigners were around but now they smile and wave openly.

Codrington recalls the moment one North Korean student met her first American. 'There was this frozen silence on the part of the little North Korean girl. She didn't know what to say because she'd been taught these people are of the devil, the greatest evil we can imagine. After a long long pause, she went back into human mode and reached out her hand and said: 'You are very welcome here anyway'.'

During the trips, the pupils are taken to maternity hospitals and department stores, and spend a day on language lessons, cultural performances and conversation with what Codrington says are non-elite students.

The school's long-term goal is to bring North Koreans to study at Li Po Chun but there are some barriers to overcome.

Part of the problem is the relatively young age of the students who would enter Li Po Chun - most North Koreans who study abroad are of college age or older.

'There's a large element of ideological education in North Korea, which the students would frankly miss out on if they came to our college in Hong Kong,' Codrington said. 'When you're talking senior party officials for whom the ideological education is an important part of forming a North Korea, they don't let go of that lightly.'

Four years ago, the programme was on the verge of a breakthrough.

'The North Koreans were interested in setting up a system at that stage, that would bring about 10 to 15 students a year to United World Colleges,' Codrington said.

But Li Po Chun could not take on so many students from a single country on scholarship, and negotiations broke down because the North Koreans did not want to send children to the 13 different UWC campuses around the world. 'I think they're a bit worried about the safety and security of their students if they go to some of the other countries, and that's understandable for an isolated nation that doesn't really have a deep understanding of many other countries in the world,' Codrington said.

The plan, programme director Ronny Mintjens says, is to bring around two students to study at Li Po Chun, a more neutral ground as Hong Kong is under Chinese rule.

'I'm very hopeful that within the next two or three years, we will be able to welcome our first North Korean students,' he said.