James Kim: A higher calling
FORTUNE -- On the morning late last year that North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong Il, the dictator who for 17 years had presided over the world's most isolated regime, James (Chin-Kyung) Kim, a 76-year-old Korean-American educator, was in an interesting place: his office in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. That alone is remarkable for a man who had in 1998 been a political prisoner of Kim Jong Il. But the fact that the institution James Kim created -- the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) -- is up and running in the heart of North Korea is a minor miracle.
We wrote about Kim in September 2009. Construction was then under way on the barren spit of land due south of central Pyongyang where the university now sits. PUST is the only private university in that isolated country -- a tribute to Kim's doggedness. Born near Seoul, he fought in the Korean War and moved to the U.S. in the 1970s. Kim managed to persuade the North Korean leadership to buy into his vision: setting up a first-rate science and technical university in the capital that draws strictly on foreign scholars for its faculty.
PUST -- which I visited for a few days just before Kim Jong Il died -- opened its doors in the fall of 2010. It now has 267 students, all male and 200 of whom are undergraduates. Classes are taught in English, and half the foreign faculty comes from the U.S., a country North Korea still relentlessly demonizes.
The students are drawn from the country's elite, many the sons of senior officials in the ruling party or military officers. PUST depends on donations to survive. Students pay no tuition, and the faculty are all volunteers. Almost all, like James Kim himself, are evangelical Christians, living a spartan existence in a country where organized religion is banned. Nonetheless, Kim and his staff believe they are serving a higher calling by helping North Korean youth.
Kim has more fundamental concerns at the moment. Much of the original funding to construct the school came from evangelical Christians in South Korea, the majority of whom are fervently anti-Communist -- something Pyongyang ignored. In the year after PUST opened, North Korea shelled one of the South's northernmost islands, and inter-Korean relations deteriorated. Not surprisingly, Kim's fundraising shriveled, leaving the students with very little scientific equipment to use.
It's conceivable that Kim Jong Il's death could reset relations between Pyongyang and the world -- and improve Kim's fundraising. And if anyone could serve as a bridge between North Korea and the outside world, it's James Kim. He attended Kim Jong Il's funeral -- one of the few Americans present, if not the only one -- shaking hands afterward with Kim Jong Un, the 29-year-old son who is now the North's supreme leader. Not long after, James flew off to Washington for a private meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Is a thaw possible? I asked him recently. "I don't know yet," he said. "Too soon to tell."