Last week, several news outlets reported that representatives of PUST, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, are in the United States, seeking support to expand their curriculum in North Korea. PUST didn’t say what kind of support it seeks, but recent reports suggest that PUST has lost donors and had to slash its budget. PUST is probably looking for money. Donors, however, would be wise to keep their checkbooks closed until the Commerce Department and a U.N. Panel of Experts review precisely what PUST is teaching the North Koreans.
1. PUST needs to give better answers to charges it’s training North Korean hackers.
PUST teaches its mostly male, entirely elite students what their government wants them to learn. PUST trains doctors and nurses, and without knowing more, that’s probably unobjectionable. But PUST also teaches information technology subjects that could be a baseline for training hackers, such as those who hacked Sony Pictures and made terrorist threats against theaters showing “The Interview.” (North Korea both denied and applauded the attacks.) Subsequently, two defectors claimed that PUST is indeed training North Korean hackers. PUST denies the claim, but without the ability to track its alumni through some of the most secretive parts of North Korea’s government, it’s hard to see how PUST could possibly know this, one way or another.
If PUST is training North Korean hackers, it’s probably doing it pursuant to a license from a the U.S. Commerce Department. Without knowing exactly what PUST is exporting to North Korea, it’s impossible for me to say which of those exports are controlled by the Commerce Department, but the list of items that may require export licenses includes software, information security, telecommunications, and computers, and PUST has admitted that it operates pursuant to Commerce Department licenses. It’s past time for the Commerce Department to review those licenses, and (at a minimum) revoke those related to information technology. The continuation of some of those programs may well violate both U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions.
2. U.S. law imposes mandatory sanctions for cyber-related activities.
Ethan Epstein’s post at The Weekly Standard raises another potential legal issue for PUST: the new sanctions law, and the executive order, section 104(a)(7) of which imposes mandatory sanctions on any person who facilitates North Korean hackers, and section 104(a)(8), which bans the export of software for the use of North Korea’s ruling party. What I can’t say is exactly what North Korean entities PUST is dealing with and how those entities are linked to North Korea’s hacking operations. The government should investigate, and until it gets satisfactory answers, it should suspend PUST’s IT-related licenses.
3. The latest U.N. resolution requires the suspension of scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea, pending U.N. or U.S. government review.
If North Korea is using PUST to train hackers, it wouldn’t be the first time a scientific or academic engagement program came under suspicion of misuse for nefarious purposes. There was the time that North Korea’s aerospace agency tried to join the International Astronautical Federation, until the U.N. Panel of Experts pointed out that Federation might have given Pyongyang access to sensitive missile-related technology. Or the Indian institute that trained North Korean rocket scientists. Or the Russian institute that hosted North Korean nuclear scientists to conduct joint research, including one who is sanctioned by name. Or the program sponsored by Syracuse University that may well have taught the North Korean security forces how to digitally watermark and trace documents smuggled into North Korea on USB drives. But surely, an exchange program to help North Korea grow food couldn’t have sinister purposes? But yes, even a Swiss-funded project, ostensibly to teach North Korea how to make bioinsecticide, turns out to be perfectly suited to produce biological agents. All of which may explain why the U.N. Security Council adopted this provision late last year:
“11. Decides that all Member States shall suspend scientific and technical cooperation involving persons or groups officially sponsored by or representing the DPRK except for medical exchanges unless:
(a) In the case of scientific or technical cooperation in the fields of nuclear science and technology, aerospace and aeronautical engineering and technology, or advanced manufacturing production techniques and methods, the Committee has determined on a case-by-case basis that a particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes; or
(b) In the case of all other scientific or technical cooperation, the State engaging in scientific or technical cooperation determines that the particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes and notifies the Committee in advance of such determination; [UNSCR 2321]
I read this language to require the U.S. government to suspend PUST’s scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea pending a full review. Whether you agree that that’s required by the letter of the resolution, that position is certainly consistent with the resolution’s spirit. Suspending PUST’s Commerce Department export licenses, and any licenses it has been granted by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, are the most obvious ways to effect that suspension.*
PUST wanted to “open a door to the outside world for the future leaders,” but as this blog has chronicled for more than a decade, this theory hasn’t worked so well in practice. Sixteen years after its founding, PUST admits that its staff “avoids talking about politics and religion in the classroom.” (Update: According to this report, PUST actually started teaching students in 2010.) For those who’ve read Suki Kim’s memoir of her experiences at PUST, that’s an understatement. She describes a suffocating, Orwellian environment where the air is thick with fear for one’s self, and for the others one might incriminate with a careless expression of free thought. PUST’s furious reaction to Ms. Kim’s book — revealing its own efforts to vicariously censor her on Pyongyang’s behalf — lent further credibility to her account.
So it always goes with those who engage Pyongyang, thinking they’ll change North Korea; it always works the other way around — there are no exceptions. Invariably, they must enlist as Pyongyang’s propagandists, censors, or financiers, or they must leave. Every wide-eyed engager predicts a Pyongyang Spring, but in Pyongyang, it’s always Groundhog Day.
~ ~ ~
* I edited this paragraph after publication.
~ ~ ~