Brethren teachers 'fall in love' with work in North Korea

Church of the Brethren Newsline
Feb. 1, 2011

Basketball team at PUST with Linda Shank - N Korea
Linda Shank poses with some of her English students after an intramural basketball game at PUST, a new university on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Robert Shank

Brethren teachers Linda and Robert Shank return to North Korea in February for a second semester teaching at the new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) on the outskirts of the capital city of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Shanks have been teaching and living at PUST since classes started Nov. 1, but are currently in the United States for the holiday break.

"The chance to meet these wonderful, bright, talented, respectful young people is a privilege beyond anything. I don't even believe it yet," commented Linda Shank during an interview at the Church of the Brethren General Offices, where Robert Shank also led a chapel service for denominational staff. They have "fallen in love" with their work at the university, he reported.

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The Shanks are teaching in N. Korea under the auspices of the Church of the Brethren's Global Mission Partnerships and Global Food Crisis Fund (GFCF). Since 1996, the fund has provided grants in N. Korea for hunger relief, agricultural development, and farm rehabilitation, and supports a cluster of farm cooperatives in order to help boost agricultural production and equip the country to avert periodic famine. Robert Shank holds a doctorate in wheat breeding and has conducted rice research. Linda Shank holds a master's degree in counseling and learning disabilities.

Part of a combined international and Korean faculty at PUST, the Shanks are two of seven teachers from Western countries including the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. The all-male student body includes 100 undergraduates, and 50 graduate students in three schools: Technology/IT, Business and Economics, and Agriculture/Life Sciences. The student body is expected to grow, as the university's 240-acre campus was built to accommodate more than 1,000.

International faculty is allowed off the walled campus only for escorted scheduled activities such as shopping at embassy stores and sightseeing. Lesson plans and lectures are approved in advance, and staying on the topic is required. However, the fear of encountering excessive rigidity quickly evaporated. "I was concerned that they would be really inhibited students," Linda said. Remembering her previous work with young people in nations affected by violence, she said, "sometimes you see guarded eyes or troubled eyes, however, these students are so normal, so undamaged."

In the first semester, all the students were required to focus on English. Linda taught reading/writing which included journaling, from which she learned much about everyday life in N. Korea and the students' families back home. For most of the undergraduates, this is their first time away from home and their first encounter with someone international. PUST attracted top-ranking students selected to attend the new institution from secondary schools and other universities. Having previously been top students, inability to be number one in class leads to fear of failure, which is a running theme of the journals. "I feed back to them all the time that while all 100 cannot be number one at PUST, they will be competent leaders when they take up their jobs in their country," Linda said.

"A challenge in class was understanding each other," Linda reported. "After two days I asked the class how much they were understanding of the verbal instruction. They said, ‘Less than 30 percent’; after six weeks they said, ‘58 percent.’ I also had difficulty understanding their spoken English, so we were all challenged in verbal interactions!"

However, they were not challenged in enjoyment of the interactions. As groups of vocabulary words accumulated, a mini-lesson would develop. One group of words was consensus, unity, and harmony. The Korean word for grandmother is "halmony." Linda joked that when children are disagreeing and "halmony" arrives, harmony arrives. Future journals included, "I apologize to 'halmony' for sleeping in class." "I apologize to 'halmony' for not having my homework done."

Linda views her work not as a call to change things in a traditionally closed society, but to educate the next generation of leadership for a nation. She is clear that the teacher's job at PUST is not to "fire up" students, but to nurture them to succeed within the society. Even though the Shanks are aware that simple exposure to international people shifts the boundaries for their students, Linda said, "We have to be very careful not to lead them down that path.... Their society needs them."

An original hope for Robert's work was to connect the university research with the farm cooperatives supported by the GFCF. Now it seems that may not be possible because of governmental divisions between departments that oversee education and agriculture. However, the Shanks are holding continued conversation with mission executive Jay Wittmeyer; GFCF manager Howard Royer; Pilju Kim Joo, president of Agglobe Services International, which is a key partner in the farm cooperatives enterprise in N. Korea; and Marv Baldwin and Bev Abma of the Foods Resource Bank, another key partner.

In place of connecting with the farms, Robert Shank now plans to put to use some of the university's extensive campus. He hopes to grow vegetables and fruit trees, develop nurseries, and create demonstration plots. Much of the campus lacks top soil and is thinly covered with weeds at the moment, he said, and university President Kim has asked him to "make it beautiful," he reported with a smile.

His idea is to do onsite teaching of bio-intensive agriculture and seed saving, "growing for calories and carbon (sequestration), building soil organic matter, and looking at a lot of grains and root crops." He is collecting seeds for 11 vegetables in different varieties, including Chinese and Korean variations. The Shanks' luggage when they return to N. Korea in late February also will include microscopes, textbooks, and other supplies for a graduate-level class on advanced genetics.

The Shanks are looking for teachers interested in volunteering at PUST for as little as one semester. The faculty is in need of more teachers for college-level English classes (BS degree required) and college- and graduate-level science, business, and computer classes (advanced degree required). For more information see http://www.pust.kr/ and an article about PUST at http://www.38north.org/. To register interest, contact Global Mission Partnerships executive director Jay Wittmeyer at jwittmeyer@brethren.org.

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