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North Korea nuclear crisis

Chinese universities ‘limiting admission of North Korean students’ as nuclear crisis escalates

Chinese colleges rejecting North Korean students’ applications, with increase in security measures since Pyongyang’s latest military test, according to college recruitment officials

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 September, 2017, 11:47pm

Some Chinese universities are restricting the admission of North Korean students and even blacklisting their scholarship applications as the nuclear weapons crisis escalates on the Korean peninsula, according to several college enrolment officers.

One recruitment official at a university in Beijing said his college was cutting back on North Korean student numbers, especially those majoring in physics or material science.

All the officials said they were following government instructions, but they did not make clear at what level the orders were made.

Surveillance has also been stepped up on North Korean students studying at Chinese universities since Pyongyang carried out its sixth nuclear test earlier this month, according to an official at a college in Beijing.

“For those already on campus, we can’t send them back home, but each of them is closely watched and followed by security personnel, or through technical methods, to prevent them from obtaining sensitive materials,” he said.

The official said several new North Korean students had arrived and started taking classes last month.

“If the test was conducted earlier, I’m not sure whether they could have made the trip,” he said.

Further student recruitment would start in April, but the official added his institution hoped to halt all North Korean enrolment as it brought “trouble” to the university.

Another student enrolment official at the military-affiliated Harbin University of Science and Technology said it had received diplomatic complaints from North Korea over its policy of rejecting “each and every” applicant from the reclusive state.

“Some candidates were very angry that their applications for Chinese government scholarships were turned down. Complaints were filed to their embassy in China and the embassy people rang questioning whether our rejection was discrimination based on nationality,” he said.

“Our response to these protests is polite but firm – that the applicant’s academic competence is not up to the standard of our programme.”

The official, however, admitted to the South China Morning Post that the college had a policy of rejecting North Korean applications and that his had been in place before Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test this month.

The latest test also prompted numerous phone calls from central government officials in Beijing asking about the number of North Korean students on campus, the official said.

“We assuredour supervisors that the number was zero. Over the years we have strictly carried out relevant instructions from above,” he said, without elaborating on who issued them or what the orders were.

He said his college had a blacklist of nations for student admissions and North Korea was not the only country on it. “There are a few other sensitive countries,” he added, without giving details.

The North Korean embassy in Beijing did not answer phone calls requesting comment.

An official at the Ministry of Education overseeing Chinese government scholarship programmes said relevant information was classified and could not be released to the public.

A statement from the spokespersons’ office at the Chinese foreign ministry said China was thoroughly implementing UN sanctions against North Korea, but it made no explicit mention of the treatment of North Korean students.

“China and North Korea are close neighbours. Both sides have maintained normal exchanges and cooperation, the statement said.

Beijing launched a programme to train North Korean scientists in 2013. The scheme provided full scholarships for doctoral programmes in selected disciplines, some at top research institutes and universities specialising in defence technologies, such as the Harbin Institute of Technology, with the first intake graduating in July this year.

The number of North Korean students in China has been estimated at several thousand, although the official figure has not been made public. A Chinese professor who has mentored several North Korean doctoral students said he had encountered many North Korean students.

“Most are in their 30s, all are married and with children at home,” the professor told the Post in March. “Their wives and children have been held hostage, so they don’t really have a choice but to return.

“Their depression grows as their departure date approaches and we all feel sad and worried about their future.”

North Korean researchers in China contacted by the Post refused to be interviewed.

Although the students’ work was highly praised by mentors, the escalating tension between the countries has prompted concerns among some in China about the presence of North Korean scientists in sensitive research institutes.

“I think our government has made a mistake [in training North Korean scientists],” a Beijing-based researcher said, who like others asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It is like a man raising a rock to drop on his own toes.”

Qin Yong, the deputy director of the international student centre at the Harbin Institute of Technology, told the Post in March that the Chinese government imposed strict security measures to protect its military technology and foreign students and researchers did not have clearance to access sensitive information.

“We can only make sure they do not have access to sensitive documents and facilities on our campus. Whether they have obtained information in other ways, such as through the internet, we cannot control. We have no right to restrict their freedom,” Qin said.

Qin could not be reached for comment this week. Staff at his office said they could not provide any information regarding North Korean recruitment at the university.

Chen Minghao, a professor of mathematics at the college, said earlier this year his North Korean students had built up “solid foundations” in mathematics before they came to China.

“The Soviet-style education in North Korea gave them very good training in basic skills and knowledge. They also work much harder than Chinese students, spending most of their time in the laboratory and library. They remind me of Chinese doctoral students overseas in the 1980s,” he said.

Chen said he almost never discussed politics with his students, who remained loyal to their country and leader.

“I strongly oppose their government’s closed-door policy and priority on military build-up. I think the world must do everything possible to stop their nuclear programme. They have their own ideology, their own beliefs,” he said.

“So we can talk about everything except politics, otherwise we may end up in a fight.”