The Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP)

Knowledge sharing is a powerful tool to promote economic growth and improve quality of life in developing countries. It gives participants access not only to practical information, but the worldview, motivations, and experiences of their partners. Sharing of this nature facilitates mutual understanding between individuals that, in turn, builds empathy, compassion, and patience—the foundation for all relationships, whether between individuals or states. Knowledge partnerships that focus on human resource development through various academic and practical programs can be one of the most successful areas of cooperation between North Korea and the outside world. Such programs are particularly important in this context because they create alternative, non-governmental avenues for dialogue that can remain active when the political environment limits official lines of communication.

With this in mind, in 2010, the author undertook an initiative to establish the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). KPP was designed to facilitate human capacity building in North Korea by providing its scholars with in-depth knowledge of the international economy, with the ultimate aim of empowering North Koreans to improve the quality of life of their own people. Through focussing on educating individuals in modern economic theory, finance, trade, and business practices, KPP is equipping individuals with the knowledge needed to formulate, influence, and enact the economic development process within their country.

KPP is the first North American program to educate North Korean university faculty members for long-term (six-month) periods in economics and business practices. It is also unique in that it focuses solely on working with North Korean professors, and not government bureaucrats, as these educators are able to transfer newly acquired knowledge directly to their students—most of whom will become the next generation of leaders within North Korean society. Most of the previous knowledge sharing programs in North America and Europe, especially those in the area of business and economics, have been comparably short in duration and directed towards the training of bureaucrats rather than of academics. In this manner, KPP is able to efficiently diffuse knowledge amongst a large audience of individuals within North Korea through a source that is legitimate and trusted. KPP participants are selected in part for their ability to utilize what they learn, either through teaching students, promoting research with colleagues, or in consultation with government agencies.

The UBC program has been hosting North Korean professors since 2011 as part of a long-term knowledge sharing exchange initiative. For its inaugural effort, KPP hosted six North Korean scholars, five from the Kim Il Sung University and one from Wonsan Economic University. The scholars, who arrived in early July and studied at UBC through December 2011, took English courses during the summer and business and management courses from September focusing on international trade, management, finance, and economics. The curriculum consisted of regular, unmodified courses also attended by UBC students. As part of the curriculum, participants completed a group research project with faculty supervision on an aspect of international trade/finance stemming from their studies at UBC. In addition, they had opportunities to take field trips, and meet with leading individuals in Canada’s financial, business, and legal communities, as well as fellow academics.

Now in its second year, KPP is hosting another group of six participants, this time from Kim Il Sung University, the University of National Economy, and the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. As in the previous year, these scholars will be provided with an in-depth education of the international economy and policies implemented by other countries. With this second year of the program well underway, UBC has emerged as a leader in academic engagement with North Korea. There is great optimism that KPP will serve as a possible model for other educational institutions interested in exploring knowledge sharing programs with North Korea in the future.

It is still too early to measure the overall impact of the KPP, as it is only in its second year. However, the program can already take advantage of the aforementioned potential for engagement and cooperation inherent in knowledge sharing efforts. KPP provides a non-political forum for open dialogue with North Koreans on a variety of issues, to build North Korea’s confidence in engagement with Western institutions, and to allow for the formation of meaningful personal and institutional relationships.

Exit interviews of the KPP participants conducted by the author indicate that KPP has been successful on a number of fronts. Participants were exposed to new knowledge and teaching methodologies that they intend to integrate into their curriculum back in North Korea. For instance, although participants had basic knowledge of the subject matter being taught in courses at UBC, they were able to gain a more in-depth understanding of international trade/business/economics theories, learn the practical applications of these theories, and were introduced to quantitative methods of research and teaching in these subject areas. They found the case study-based method of research and teaching particularly effective, and were eager to share and implement this approach upon their return home. Participants were also introduced to a group work and participation-driven style of learning that is relatively uncommon in North Korea. Although they found this style not easy to adjust to, they felt that they could experiment with it in their teaching.

Second, program participants were able to gain a great deal of new knowledge and its application to trade models, economic growth theory and the role of government in promoting economic growth, corporate finance and accounting theories, and public finance concepts. They were also able to collect a variety of materials that they were confident would form the basis for in-depth research upon their return to North Korea. All intended to share this knowledge and materials with their colleagues, and adapt their courses to integrate the new concepts, with several participants suggesting that they would be able to create new courses based on what they learned.

Third, participants were optimistic about their ability to share knowledge gained here with North Korean policymakers. Some felt the influence of this new knowledge would be felt in the future, as their students will be assigned key posts in the policy-making system upon graduation. Follow-up visits to North Korea by the author have confirmed that these program participants are actively taking steps to implement their KPP knowledge and experiences to these ends.

As for the future, it appears that North Korea will continue to expand selected knowledge sharing opportunities. However, the North will focus on promoting programs that are directed to substantive and issue-specific activities with limited goals, and without political ramifications. As long as partner institutions are sensitive to these facts, there is great potential for successfully pursuing engagement with North Korea through knowledge sharing.

Another key factor in starting these programs is institutional and personal relationships. In the case of UBC’s knowledge sharing program, great emphasis has been placed on pre-existing faculty member relationships and the university’s historical contacts with North Korea, including faculty visits to and from North Korea. Key to the UBC program’s success was the ability to leverage personal and institutional contacts and a positive reputation gained through these contacts over the last fifteen years. Without these pre-existing contacts and positive reputation, it is unlikely the program would have gotten underway in such a prompt and satisfactory fashion.

However, cultivating relationships is not the only challenge in initiating and maintaining knowledge sharing programs with North Korea. There are a huge number of financial and political challenges associated with engaging the North that are both substantial and daunting. Perseverance and widespread commitment to the process of getting the knowledge sharing program underway are required to realize success.

Despite these challenges, the benefits to be gained from establishing a successful knowledge sharing partnership with North Korea—particularly the potential for this new model of engagement to encourage cooperation between North Korea and the outside world—are well worth an institution’s effort.

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