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HPU professor and dean recalls experiences in North Korea

Bryant in North Korea[This story was originally published in the summer 2013 issue of the HPU Update.]

In 2012, Dr. Pam Bryant, professor of chemistry and dean of Howard Payne University’s School of Science and Mathematics, delivered a message titled “The Magnitude of God” at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Wheaton College in Naperville, Ill. Shortly after her speech ended, she was approached by two people who presented her with an opportunity to learn even more about the power of God in her own life.

“I was introduced to Joshua Song and Pilju Kim,” Dr. Bryant said. “They talked to me about a school in North Korea that taught in English and was run by Christian faculty.”

Pilju Kim, who serves as the director of agricultural research and development at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, explained that the university needed a biochemist for the summer.

“They wanted to know if I was interested,” Dr. Bryant recalled. “All I could think was, ‘Surely you must mean South Korea!’ I didn’t even know that Americans could go to North Korea.”

She admitted that she didn’t know much about the communist country or its citizens.

“All I knew was that they were our enemy and that they were trying to make a nuclear bomb,” she said. “However, sometimes you just know when God is calling you to do something.”

After much prayerful consideration, and many discussions with her pastor, friends and family, Dr. Bryant agreed to teach biochemistry for eight weeks in May-June 2012 in Pyongyang to 20 undergraduate and seven graduate students.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is the only private university in North Korea and is funded in part by Christian donors from around the world. Though North Korea is largely closed off from the rest of society, the university brings scientists from other cultures to teach its students. The Christians who support the university seize the opportunity to share the love of God, however indirectly, with the students.

“I was not allowed to minister to my class or even mention God,” Dr. Bryant said. “But I made an effort to show the Christian spirit. These young people are taught daily that Americans are mean and evil, so I showed them the fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23, such as peace, patience and goodness.”

Upon arrival in North Korea, she was required to surrender her passport and cell phone, and was housed in a compound surrounded by a fence and guards during the length of her stay.

“Outsiders cannot talk directly with ordinary people in North Korea, nor may they use the taxis,” Dr. Bryant said. “They must communicate through a minder (escort) and use an official driver.”

According to Dr. Bryant, the North Korean government realizes its students are behind in science education due to these strict societal rules. Rather than sending students out of the country to expand their educations, the government officials recruit scientists from around the world so that their students may experience other cultures while still remaining under their control. Dr. Bryant found her class to be very receptive to her teaching.

“These students were so hungry for knowledge they would sometimes come to class almost exhausted from trying to learn so much so fast,” she said. “The students all appreciated the opportunity they were given in my classroom. I worked to be a good steward for the U.S., my God and the subject I taught.”

Last fall, Dr. Bryant presented a paper titled “Teaching Biochemistry in Pyongyang, North Korea” at the Fourth International Conference on Science in Society at the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke with colleagues from universities around the world.

“I was sent to North Korea to come back and tell the world about my experiences,” she said. “This university in Pyongyang is a gift from God. It’s there because of the people who say ‘yes’ when God asks for simple things.”

To view Dr. Bryant’s complete article as presented at the University of California, Berkeley, click here.

Photo cutline: HPU’s Dr. Pam Bryant teaches a class at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. (Photo by Yu Chon)