Top university spearheads Korea’s unification drive

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As he reflects on his time as the former President of Seoul National University, Professor Nak-in Sung tells John O’Leary that the institution is well positioned and making good use of its privileged position to boost its contribution to the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

Population decline is causing unprecedented concern for many universities in South Korea. Eight institutions were ordered to shut their doors last year, and the government expects another 38 to close in the foreseeable future. But when Professor Nak-in Sung completed his four-year term of office as President of Seoul National University (SNU), in July 2018, he left his institution stronger than ever and at the centre of global attention.

As the most prestigious university in South Korea, SNU’s attempts to interact more closely with its counterpart in the North, Kim Il-sung University, have been followed unusually closely. Professor Sung had proposed cross-border visits by the two university presidents and now SNU students are trying to set up an exchange program with their peers in Pyongyang. The South Korean government has given its blessing and the first exchanges could take place in 2019.

The SNU students’ invitation stressed the pivotal position of the two universities in their respective countries, emphasising the importance of “exchange and cooperation between the future leaders” of the two Koreas. It proposed a meeting to “discuss the future of the nation and explore the legacy of our ancestors.”

The symbolism is not lost on diplomats and politicians as the on/off negotiations between North and South – not to mention the United States – drag on. SNU has had an Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) for a decade, and is anxious to play its part. About 100 SNU students have expressed interest in participating in the historic first exchange.

Although he can no longer influence the process directly, Professor Sung is optimistic that the two Koreas will reunite in his lifetime. Interviewed at the 2018 QS Maple conference, in Bahrain, he said: “We want a graduate school for peace and human rights and we are prepared to invite North Korean students. We already accept students onto courses who are defectors from the North.”

The IPUS oversees and supervises the growing volume of research on unification conducted at the university, and builds connections with other relevant research centres in Korea and overseas. It focuses on multidisciplinary research on North-South unification issues, attempting to identify existing and potential challenges to the process. On 27 November 2018, it held a major conference entitled “The Unification and Peace Study Agenda for a New South-North Relations” to cover various issues ranging from international relations, culture & sports, health care, agriculture & fisheries, and economic development.

There have been suggestions that SNU and other universities in the South might collaborate with scientists in the North on selected research projects. Although previously resistant to the idea, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has now called for Kim Il-sung University to become world-class and to conduct joint research with prestigious universities and research organisations in other countries.

SNU would be the obvious partner in the South. Under Professor Sung, SNU has taken a leap forward in areas such as computer science and artificial intelligence in particular, forging new links with major companies in the field and developing its research park.

“We plan to enlarge computer science,” Professor Sung said. “Korea is famous for hardware, with companies like Samsung, but in the case of software they do not have such chutzpah. Students are less interested in the hardware part. Artificial intelligence is where the computing revolution is taking place. Almost every student wants to study in these new fields so we offer interdisciplinary studies.

“Four years ago, we established our Big Data Institute from the Department of Electronics – one of our most famous venture capitalists set up his own IT institute. I would like to integrate a graduate school like this for big data and Science. Last year, we inaugurated the Samsung Research Institute in our research park, costing 150 billion Korean Won (approx. US$130 million). The research park is on the campus, with LG, SK Telecom and others based there. There is a lot of cooperation with students because that is very important to venture capitalists – they want youngsters’ ideas,” Professor Sung observes.

Samsung Electronics has since signed a partnership with SNU to foster scientific research in the semiconductor sector. The company sees the partnership as a key driver for its work in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), fifth-generation (5G) networks and the internet of things.

Other firms are interested in locating on the university’s new “smart campus” at Siheung, outside Seoul. The development has been controversial, with students complaining that it was overly commercial and focused on rankings. But the university says the campus is necessary to house international studies departments and research facilities, and will not affect other students.

Professor Sung says: “So many companies want to participate. It will open next year with a marine laboratory. It is a huge space, so we will proceed on a gradual basis.” He hopes that the technology used in the campus might also lead to collaboration with the Chinese government, which is planning a ‘smart city’ near Beijing.

SNU hopes that such projects will attract more international students to add to the current 3,000. There is also a summer school for foreign students, which draws participants from 40 countries. “So many foreign students want to study on our campus but we control the quality of students very tightly,” Professor Sung says.

South Korean universities are generally keen to attract more international students to plug the gaps in enrolments caused by the declining population of the country. It has welcomed record numbers of foreign students, with growth of almost 19 per cent last year. Their numbers had soared to 142,000 in April from 124,000 the previous year, dwarfing the 12,000 foreign students of just 15 years ago. The government has set a target of 200,000 foreign students by 2023. By that date, however, the government expects university numbers to have fallen by 120,000 due to demographic pressures. More than 100 universities have had their quotas reduced for the coming year, some by as much as 35 per cent. About half of international students are on degree programs, attracted not only by the success of Korean companies but also by the popularity of Korean pop music, film and drama.

SNU is immune to such pressures, however. “Every student wants to come to SNU, so we are not affected by the decline in population, as other universities are,” Professor Sung says. “High school students visit every day, including weekends. There are summer camps with faculty members in the countryside. Parents really want to be SNU parents.” The immense prestige attached to the university is partly responsible, but there have been important developments during Professor Sung’s term of office as president. “The concepts of American-style and European-style universities are quite different,” he says. “I tried to combine the two so that the nature of Korean universities would have two aspects.”

From the start, Professor Sung was determined to prioritise students and to create “good-willed, brilliant minds” that would turn into responsible citizens. New interdisciplinary courses have been introduced addressing “life’s important questions”, such as the pursuit of happiness.

The undergraduate entrance system was changed to make it more inclusive of students from poorer backgrounds. Only 30 per cent are now selected on their scores in high school and standardised tests, while the majority are admitted on broader criteria, including essays. At the same time, the financial aid system has been reformed to focus on needs-based, rather than merit-based, awards. Every student admitted from a family whose income is among the lowest 10 per cent now receives a full tuition scholarship plus additional support for fees, housing and meals.

Professor Sung acknowledges that SNU could hardly be less typical of the nation’s universities. Fees in the public universities have effectively been frozen for a decade, for example, but SNU alumni and other admirers of the university make regular donations that support new developments and scholarships. Elsewhere, 55 per cent of universities’ income, on average, comes from tuition fees, which were limited to a below-inflation maximum rise of 1.8 per cent for the most recent year.

There have been protests at a number of universities, where students fear that their courses might disappear, particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences, where the quotas of students have been cut, while the number of engineering students has been allowed to rise. Some universities have admitted that they will have to close or merge courses to reduce numbers, with several universities sharing professors in order to reduce costs. In spite of this challenging higher education landscape, Professor Sung’s comments reveal that he leaves the highest office at SNU with the institution strongly positioned to more forward at the forefront of university excellence and innovation not just on the Korean peninsula but internationally.’

Professor Sung Nak-in is a renowned constitutional scholar who completed his four-year term as President of Seoul National University (SNU) in July 2018. He received his LLB from Seoul National University in 1973 and Docteur en droit from University of Paris II in 1987. After several years in the Department of Law at Yeungnam University, latterly as a professor, he became a professor at SNU College of Law in 1999 and served as the Dean of the College from 2004 to 2006. Professor Sung took office as President of Seoul National University in 2014. He guided the university under the vision of “a university all can take pride in, a university loved by the people, and a university leading the world.” President Sung chaired the Policy Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Unification (2010-2013); the Korean Law Professors Association (2009-2013); and the Public Ethics Committee of the National Assembly (2010-2012). He was also a member of the Presidential Commission on Education Reform (1995-1997). Among the awards he has received are the Order of Service Merit Award from the President of Korea, in 2005, and the Distinguished Research Award from the Korean Constitutional Law Association, in 2012.