Cameramen film under the North Korean flag during a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, on October 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj
Cameramen film under the North Korean flag during a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, on October 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea’s only western-funded university, will start the fall semester without its dozens of American staff after failing to secure exemptions to a US travel ban that starts on Friday.

PUST – home to the largest concentration of foreigners in the reclusive state – plans to revise courses and teaching schedules but its largely English-based curriculum will be heavily impacted, two sources familiar with PUST’s operations said.

PUST was founded in 2010 by a Korean American evangelical Christian with the goal of helping North Korea’s future elite learn the skills to modernise the isolated country and engage with the outside world.

In mid-July, however, the US State Department announced a ban on Americans traveling to North Korea following the death earlier this year of an American student who had been detained by the state while on a tour. It advised US citizens living there to leave.

(Click here for a graphic on Americans detained in North Korea.)

Since then, tensions on the Korean peninsula have escalated significantly. Nuclear-armed North Korea has undertaken a number of provocative missile tests, including two intercontinental ballistic missile launches and one medium-range missile test this week that flew over Japan.

Leaving Pyongyang

Of the roughly 130 foreigners at PUST including faculty members, staffers and family members, about 60 were US citizens, one of the sources said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

None had received special permission to stay and all have now left Pyongyang.

“The teaching activities and the unique ‘international English-based’ character of the school are severely impacted by the US travel ban and the decision of some other personnel not to return,” the source said.

The school, which is open about its Christian affiliation, has already been rocked by the detention of two of its staff members by the North Korean regime this year. The two were accused of acting against the interests of the state.

US officials announced the ban six weeks ago due to the risk Americans will be held for “long-term detention” in the country. The ban was imposed after US student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster while on a tour last year.

Otto Warmbier at a news conference in North Korea in February 2016 after being detained in the country the previous month. Reuters/Kyodo

Warmbier fell into a coma in custody and died soon after he was released to US officials. The circumstances surrounding his death are not clear.

The last major tour involving U.S. tourists flew out of North Korea on Thursday.

Little guidance

The ban, similar to previous U.S. restrictions on travel to Iraq and Libya, makes North Korea the only country in the world Americans are currently banned by the State Department from visiting. Journalists and humanitarian workers can apply for special permission.

But the US government has yet to issue guidelines on how to obtain waivers, leaving PUST and educators uncertain how or when it might be possible to apply for exemptions, according to the people familiar with PUST’s operations.

The State Department said it was unable to comment on specific requests for exemptions.

Over the past several weeks, PUST leaders have tried to lobby for exemptions so that their work can continue, the sources said. The school is involved in ongoing discussions with US officials, they added.

The university was seen as a rare experiment in academic diplomacy with a country increasingly entirely isolated from the rest of the world due to tightening sanctions over its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

US President Donald Trump has vowed to stop Pyongyang achieving its goal of being able to fire a nuclear warhead to the United States and has warned the US military is “locked and loaded” in case of North Korean provocation.

Since PUST took in its first 50 students in 2010, the school has grown to about 500 undergraduate and 60 graduate students studying in mostly three departments – electronic and computer engineering, international finance and management, and agriculture and life sciences.

“A lot of effort has been spent over the past seven years that PUST has been operating. The prospect of this progress being undermined – even totally thwarted – as a consequence of the US government action, is deeply worrying to everyone involved,” one of the sources said.