Young men in identical suits and briefcases suits march to lessons, singing songs about war. Their day starts early, with exercise at 6.30am and a relentless timetable of studying and indoctrination.
There are around 500 students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), a private university in the heart of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Most are in their 20s, and said to be sons of some of the most powerful men in North Korea. Women are not allowed to study there.
“Patriotism is a tradition,” said a 20-year-old first-year student. “The songs we sing as we march are in thanks to our Great Leader.” A fellow student added: “We want to make our country a prosperous, powerful nation. We support our country first then ourselves.”
Despite the students’ nationalist overtures, the university, which is funded by charities in South Korea and the US, is intended to be an academic “Trojan Horse”, sowing the seeds of future dissent among a generation of future leaders, according to a BBC Panorama investigation being broadcast tonight.
Having opened three years ago, the first students graduate in May. “The hope is the young people who come through that university will be people who will question, and who will ask the right questions about the ideology, about the system, the way that the country is structured,” said Lord Alton, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, and patron of the university.
Students at Pust are given the economic, agricultural and technical skills to benefit North Korean society. A modern dental clinic at the university also means some students can have pain-free treatment for first time in their lives.
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament programme at the International Institute of Strategic Studies said although this may seem minor, it could foster frustrations with the status quo. Merely allowing a foreign-funded institution to exist in the pariah state would be considered a risk for the regime.
“If change is going to come to North Korea in positive ways it’s probably going to come from privileged people like the students at Pust ,” he said. However, Greg Scarlatoiu, of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, warned: “The key question is whether Pust is training those young Koreans most likely to change the country in a positive way, or those most likely to perpetuate the current regime.”
The founder and president of Pust, Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim, claimed: “Inside here, we truly have freedom. They never tell me, ‘don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that’.”
For the BBC team filming there in December, however, access was strictly “monitored” and they were banned from certain locations.
Access to the internet is strictly controlled and students cannot access social media or any foreign news sites. When Panorama asked a class of students if they had heard of Michael Jackson, one replied: “Michael Jackson? Is he your President?”
When asked why the country is so underdeveloped, another student said: “US imperialism isolates our country. That’s the main reason.” But he was curious about the world outside. “We are learning foreign languages... learning a language is learning a culture. I want more.” The conversation was cut short, as a guard marched over and took the student to one side.
Sandralee Moynihan, a lecturer at Pust in December, said life at the university was “very restrictive” and lecturers “can’t even take a walk in a park”. But she also said she believed the institution was helping students to become “bolder”.
Ms Moynihan has since left Pust and been blacklisted by North Korea.
‘Educating North Korea’ airs tonight at 8.30pm on BBC1Reuse content