In the U.S., a few different institutions consider themselves to be the nation’s first. Harvard calls itself “the oldest institution of higher education in the United States.” The University of Pennsylvania claims to be “America's First University.” America’s “first research university,” however, is a title claimed by Johns Hopkins.
In North Korea, there is no contention as to who was first because, well, it’s North Korea. And the school in question is none other than Kim Il Sung University. The alma mater of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, and Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, it was one of the places visited by Google chairman Eric Schmidt on his trip to Pyongyang last year. Founded in 1946 (or, Juche 35, if you’re going by the North Korean calendar), the university has now launched its first-ever website.
The site is not unlike North Korea itself: austere and more than a little bit dated-looking. The site’s “History” section describes the university as “the base for training native cadres and scientific and technological talents who propel the development of all domains of politics, the economy, science, education and culture.” To avoid any possible confusion, it points out up front that the name “Kim Il Sung University” was chosen “in reflection of the people's ardent desire to name the first people's university of the country after General Kim Il Sung.”
To a prospective student, Kim Il Sung University’s marketing style might seem different than that of the typical American college. There aren’t any pictures of happy co-eds enjoying themselves on the quad, or primers on Greek life. Instead, we learn that, “Chairman Kim Jong Il conducted his revolutionary activities at the university from September Juche 49 (1960) to March Juche 53 (1964) and performed undying exploits on behalf of the times and history with his tireless pursuit of knowledge and energetic ideological and theoretical activities. It was in this period that the university enjoyed its greatest success in its development. Under his wise leadership, the university further developed into the university of the Party and the leader that regards loyalty to them as its life and soul.”
Internet access is extremely rare in North Korea, though the Kim Il Sung University website shows off its E-Library to those able to access it. However, the description of the library is preceded by a description of the plaque outside its entrance, which reads: “Keep your feet firmly planted in this land and look out over the world! Be reliable supports of the Songun revolution possessed of a lofty spirit and rich knowledge! Redouble your efforts to make the Party and Kim Il Sung’s Korea admired by the world! December 17, 2009, Kim Jong Il”
The university, which has produced “16 DPRK Heroes, 81 Labour Heroes and over 800 academicians, professors and doctors,” proudly points out its public art collection on the new website. It notes the statue of Kim Il Sung erected “on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK in September Juche 57 (1968),” as well as a more recent acquisition, a statue of Kim Jong Il put up “on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the university in October Juche 102 (2013).” North Korea’s current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t have a statue, but is said to be “Keeping the lifetime wishes of the great leaders deep in his mind,” and as such, “saw to it that the deluxe flats were built and provided for the lecturers and researchers of the University.”
If there’s one thing North Korea is prouder of than their infrastructure, it’s their leadership. The apartments, the university’s website continues, were built on a site chosen personally by Kim Jong Il before he died. Then, “Kim Jong Un, who takes it as his mission to perfectly implement the instructions of the Chairman, energetically guided the whole process of the construction project.”
According to the university, this was no small feat for North Korea’s boy leader:
“Busy as he was with leading the Songun revolution, he visited the construction site on two occasions on August 13 and September 28, Juche 102 (2013). Despite the sultry weather, he climbed up and down the stairs of the skyscraper under construction as lift was not yet installed, lest there should be anything insufficient, with the care of parents who set up separate homes for their children.
“He attended the inaugural ceremony of the apartment blocks on October 9 and warmly congratulated the educators on moving into new houses and had a photo taken together with the lecturers and researchers in front of the newly built houses.
“The apartment houses consist of two blocks-one is 44-storeyed and the other 36-storeyed. Each apartment of the twin buildings has several bedrooms, a sitting room with an LCD TV, a study, a kitchen with kitchen utensils and a full set of tableware, a mirror, an air conditioner, and high quality furniture. It is provided with best conditions for water supply, heating and ventilation.
The movers to the new homes are determined to make greater achievements in education and scientific research to repay the solicitude of the Party and the leaders.”
Of course, undergrads at North Korea’s first university are taken care of, too. The school’s site makes mention of an indoor swimming pool, completed in September 2009—or, Juche 98.
Installed “under the warm care of the Party and the leaders,” the pool “consists of a diving tower, eight lanes and a 900-seater auditorium, a wading pool with such hydrotherapeutic facilities as water massaging and jetting devices and two water slides, bathrooms, a rehabilitation exercise room and other service facilities. The basement is furnished with modern equipment and facilities for clean water supply, temperature control and ventilation….It is a favourite haunt of lecturers and students of the university and is visited even by foreigners.”
The president of Mongolia is one foreigner who may not be invited back to Kim Il Sung University anytime soon. When he showed up to give a speech there last year, the North Koreans asked that he not mention the words “market economy” or “democracy.” So, he didn’t. Instead, the president treated the students and professors to a long talk about “freedom,” and was planning to stick around for a Q&A afterwards.
As the official transcript dryly notes, “No questions were asked.”