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Six Stalinists Enroll in an MBA Program -- No, This Is Not the Beginning of a Joke

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Six North Korean professors "are studying economics and other related subjects at a university in Canada on a months-long program initiated by the school," reports the Korea Times, saying it provides "a rare opportunity for the people of the repressive regime."

The article continues:

Professor Park Kyung-ae, director of the Center for Korean Research at the University of British Columbia, told Yonhap News Agency the North Koreans arrived last month to study international business, international economics, finance and trade. Five of the visiting professors teach these subjects at Kimilsung University, the elite North Korean institution named after the country's founding leader, while one teaches at a university of economics in the eastern city of Wonsan, she said, declining to give further details.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported earlier that the six professors from Kimilsung University were studying on an MBA course at the university in Vancouver. In fact, Park said the North Koreans will study four subjects at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels starting in September, after completing a two-month English language course.

The visiting professors are the first group to have been invited under the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program, which Park helped launch at UBC last year. DPRK stands for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

While this group of professors may be the first to travel under the auspices of this particular program, the "rare opportunity" to travel is indeed rare, but by all accounts, a North Korean never really leave the country that far behind.

A report out today from South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo takes a peek into the lives of a thousands-strong North Korean labor force in Vladivostok, Siberia:

There are an estimated 3,000 North Korean laborers in Vladivostok. One source there said, "In the past, most of the North Korean laborers worked at logging sites near Khabarovsk, but now most of them work at building sites here." City officials expect around 3,000 more North Koreans to arrive.

But they are getting stripped of their hard-earned money by the regime. They are sent to Vladivostok by North Korean companies tasked with raising foreign currency and must send a set portion of their earnings back to the North. When their three- to five-year contracts expire, they return home.

One South Korean resident in Russia said, "Even in winter, when there is no work, North Korean workers are threatened by their government minders, who extort money by telling them it is up to them whether they want to stay in Russia or go back to the North and starve."

As for the motives behind sending teachers from a Stalinist state to learn free market principles in the West, the general consensus (although nothing in North Korea can ever truly be confirmed) is that the Kim regime is once again acting in its usual self-interest.

In April, a group of North Korean envoys spent two weeks touring companies that "represent main strands of the U.S. economy."

As we reported at the time, they visited Google (GOOG), Home Depot (HD), Bloomberg, Citigroup (C), Qualcomm(QCOM), Sempra Energy(SRE), Union Bank, and Universal Studios, as well as a mushroom farm, a seafood wholesaler, and the Port of Los Angeles, where they leaned about trade infrastructure.

Could the "DPRK 12" be sending a signal that the North “is finally getting serious about introducing more market-based economic reforms?” newspaper JoonAng Ilbo asked. “Has the reformist message that China, its closest ally, has been hammering home for years finally gotten across? Or is the envoys’ mission just a conciliatory gesture to try to woo food aid from the U.S. amid a deepening food crisis?”

The short answer is, no one knows.

David Straub, a former Senior Foreign Service Officer who spent 30 years focused on Northeast Asian affairs declined a request for comment, but in a recent paper, asserted that, “The fact of the matter is that no one, not even in Pyongyang, really knows what is going to happen there. I believe there could be dramatic change in the regime in North Korea even as you are reading this, but I also believe it is possible that the regime could last many decades more.”

Henry Rowen, Co-director of Stanford’s Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Director emeritus of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution who gave a presentation to the North Koreans, said in an email that he knew “very little about the group and its mission,” though he added a caveat that, “My hunch is that it was less significant than you suggest.”

Most optimistic of all seemed to be Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (1986–97) and current co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Hecker, who has been granted access to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, told an audience about an experience he had during a recent visit to Pyongyang.

As Hecker entered a subway station in the capital city, he encountered a young man “wearing a backwards baseball cap with a Nike (NKE) swoosh.”

“When he gets to be 21 years old, they’re gonna have a hard time keeping him down on the farm,” Hecker said.

“Where there is ‘swoosh,’ there is hope.”

We'll see if the newly-minted North Korean "capitalists" bring home suitcases filled with Air Jordans at the end of their stay in Canada. Though, it's a safe bet there'll be quite a few cases of Molson making the trip back to Pyongyang.
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