A new video blog posted on the Facebook page of an elite university in Pyongyang attempts to give an insight into the lives of students pursuing their education on campus. But its tone appears to be contorted.
The video starts playing: a black screen for a few seconds, followed by solemn piano music. Then a young woman with chin-length hair appears in a classroom, wearing a school uniform, with gray blazer over a white blouse. And on the left side of the blazer, a red button displays the faces of North Korea's founder and "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung as well as his son and successor Kim Jong Il.
The girl then starts speaking: "My name is Mi Hyang and I am the student of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST)." Mi Hyang is the protagonist of the first video blog posted a few days ago by PUST on its Facebook page. More such videos are expected to follow, one each month.
PUST Dental Clinic, located on campus, will feature in next month's video, the university's Facebook page says, noting that the aim of the video series is "to glimpse life at our university."
Online in Kim's land
It is remarkable that the university has a Facebook page at all, as North Korea remains largely offline. A recent report released by We Are Social, a communications agency, reveals that only a mere 7,000 North Koreans have access to the Internet. And they mostly consist of foreign business executives visiting the country, says a spokesperson for the communications agency.
North Koreans, however, are limited to the nationwide, state-controlled Intranet, which links up libraries, universities and government organizations across the isolated East Asian nation and provides access to state media and a restricted number of information sources.
PUST, however, seems to be an exception, as it is connected to the World Wide Web.
The university, which educates the sons and daughters of Pyongyang's elites, was founded by a Korean-American Christian entrepreneur, with help of funds from American and South Korean Christian charities. And all classes are taught in English, and many of the professors are American.
Students at the university also have access to the Internet, PUST's chancellor Park Chan-Mo told Korea Times newspaper shortly after the opening of the university in 2010, adding: "They may use it for research purposes." He, however, did not give a clear answer when asked about the extent to which the students' Internet activity was monitored, noting merely that the Internet would be used solely for scientific purposes.
A university with contradictions
PUST currently boasts about 560 students, according to the university website. It is run exclusively through donations and church funds, and the North Korean government assumes no costs of training the nation's future elites.
At the same time, Christian teachers on campus are not allowed to speak openly about their faith. And Christians continue to be a persecuted lot in North Korea.
North Korea remains largely offline, with most people in the country only having access to the nationwide Intranet.
US journalist Suki Kim describes these contradictions as "almost ironical." She says the existence of PUST is proof that at least some in the North Korean leadership do not intend to completely isolate the country from the rest of the world. Foreign know-how, in any case, is sought after in a bid to provide their children with the best possible education and training.
Suki Kim knows about PUST from her own personal experience. In 2011, she spent a semester at the university in Pyongyang, disguised as an "ordinary" teacher. She was, however, conducting research to write a book about her experiences there. The book, titled "Without you, there is no us," was published in 2014. The title refers to a song that students at the university sang everyday while marching, in honor of the then dictator Kim Jong Il.
In her book, Suki Kim wrote about her negative experiences in the country, pointing out that she was constantly under surveillance, unable to move freely and never allowed to go out alone.
Sending a message
The producers of the video blog, however, want to send out a different image of the country, which can be seen on PUST's Facebook page. The message could be summed up as follows: "Look, we are modern, cosmopolitan and here there is everything that one could wish for." The sprawling campus is seen in the picture. And in the video, the first semester student Mi Hyang talks about how nervous she felt at the beginning while meeting foreign professors.
Mi Hyang also speaks about the fun students have on campus. "I study and live on campus with my classmates and friends," she says, adding that they do everything together.
The whole video appears to be a well-rehearsed affair. At one point, she says there's an adage in her country: "keep your feet planted on the ground and set your eyes upon the world." Journalist Suki Kim is also aware of this saying, which she cited in her book.
The author noted in her book that her North Korean students had no knowledge about the world outside their home country. That's why they thought their country enjoyed a good reputation beyond its borders, she underlined.
PUST student Mi Hyang also wants to focus solely on her studies and become a doctor in the future. She hopes that the foreign-funded university will help her to achieve her goal. "Then I can say: Thank you very much for realizing my dream to my motherland," she says with a smile on her face and then the video ends.