Christian university in North Korea seeks Texas A&M academic help

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Reuters) - The leaders of the only private university in North Korea asked Texas A&M University, known for its agricultural economics and public health programs, for help on Monday in teaching subjects such as how to grow food in a land of chronic shortages.

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010, with students generally the children of the country's elite. The PUST delegation said the requested help is not about politics but about using academics for humanitarian ideals.

"It just tugs at the heartstrings when people realize that there are these people who are struggling to get the food that they need. If there is no food, there is no education and life breaks down," Norma Nichols, director of international academic affairs for the university in the North Korean capital.

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North Korea's obsession with huge, intricate buildings
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North Korea's obsession with huge, intricate buildings

Entering the capital city of Pyongyang, visitors pass through the Arch of Reunification. The two women holding a conjoined North and South Korea symbolize supreme leader Kim Il Sung's vision for the two countries.

(Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images)

Immediately, visitors are struck by the Workers' Party Monument. The outer belt reads, "Long live the Workers' Party of Korea, the organizer and guide of all victories of the Korean people!"

(Photo by Mark Edward Harris/Getty Images)

Downtown Pyongyang's skyline is punctuated by the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, currently the tallest abandoned building in the world. It hasn't had any work done on it since 1992.

(Photo via REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

On the other side of the city, the 558-feet-tall Juche Tower looms above the Taedong River.

(Photo by Tim Johnson/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Some of North Korea's most impressive (and intimidating) architecture lives in the city center, such as the sprawling Manyongdae Children's Palace. It features two "arms" meant to imitate a mother's embrace.

(Photo by NK News/Getty Images)

North Korea doesn't have enough of its own electricity, so at night the entire country goes pitch black. What little remains goes toward illuminating a picture of the country's founder, Kim Il-Sung.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

These buildings wouldn't be possible without the thousands of laborers who are forced to work long hours to build them.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

The conditions are often poor, if not downright treacherous.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Much of the country's architecture is meant to honor North Korea's leaders, Kim Il-Sung, who led between 1972 and 1994, and Kim Jong Il, who followed Sung until his own death in 2011.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The two men are proudly memorialized all around Pyongyang, most obviously at the People's Grand Assembly Hall.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Nearby is the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which celebrates Korea's victory over the imperialist American forces during the Korean War.

(Photo by Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images)

One building in central Pyongyang reads, "The great comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will be with us forever."

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Disregarding the blatant propaganda, there are many aspects of North Korean architecture that are genuinely impressive. The metro station is among the most ornate in the world.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea is also home to the largest sports arena in the world, May Day Stadium.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Filled to capacity, it's capable of holding 150,000 people. Most often, it's used for the annual Mass Games, which pay tribute to the country's history.

(Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid the bleakness of everyday life, people also manage to find time to have fun at the Munsu Water Park.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Science also plays a big role in North Korea. The Sci-Tech Complex, for example, was built in the shape of an atom and opened in early 2015.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The country's leader, Kim Jong Un, has said he hopes the center will help "advance the establishment of a rich and powerful fatherland through the locomotive of science and technology."

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

The structure joins the Mirae Scientists Street, which North Korea wants to use as its hub for becoming a global force in innovation.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Some apartment buildings sport solar panels.

(Photo via REUTERS/Staff)

Many of the buildings stand out for their bold color palettes and industrial feel.

(Photo via REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

But others, like the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage, opt instead for bright pastels.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Completed in June of 2015, the home is spread across several floors. Its blues and yellows stand in stark relief to the concrete that dominates so much of North Korea's landscape.

(Photo via REUTERS/KCNA)

Whatever bright spots there may be, from far away the skyline clearly reveals North Korea's obsession with power and might.

(Photo credit ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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North Korea's centrally planned rationing system never recovered from a famine in the 1990s. From April to June last year the state handed out just 360 grams (12.7 oz) of rations per person per day, the lowest amount for five years, a World Food Program report said.

PUST, with a volunteer faculty mostly of evangelical Christians, has a curriculum that includes subjects once considered taboo in North Korea, such as capitalism. The college is an unlikely fit in a country that has been condemned by the U.S. State Department for cracking down on freedom of religion.

But at times, the reclusive state allows help, especially when someone else picks up the tab for an expensive project the country's leadership feels is not undermining the state.

The staff at PUST, trying to expose the country to foreign academics and research, avoids talking about politics and religion in the classroom, in the restricted campus.

The delegation is seeking help from about 10 U.S. universities on topics such as food security and improving nutrition. The United States is a leading proponent of sanctions on North Korea for its military provocations and nuclear arms program.

Nichols said the other U.S. schools that have been approached have asked to keep their names private.

Texas A&M has projects in several global hot spots, including Afghanistan and central Africa.

"For us, it is as much a scholarly engagement as an altruistic engagement," said Edward Price, director of the school's Center on Conflict and Development in the Department of Agricultural Economics.

"We are driven by the notion that food security is fundamental to peace," Price said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frances Kerry)


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