KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Malaysian university faced public criticism Thursday for awarding an honorary doctorate in economics to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose country is among the poorest in the world.
The privately run HELP University said a "simple ceremony" to mark the conferment was held in early October at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The North Korean ambassador to Malaysia accepted the honor on Kim's behalf.
The event initially received little attention in this Southeast Asian nation but was reported briefly by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. It attracted criticism on social networks in Malaysia this week after the U.S.-based Foreign Policy magazine posted a blog article that expressed surprise about the decision.
The university's president, Paul Chan, said in a statement released this week that the decision was about "building a bridge to reach the people" by using "a soft constructive approach" to engage with North Korea.
"To help (North Korea) in the way we do it is a road untraveled, but we hope our first small crucial step will contribute to peace and prosperity for all," Chan wrote.
KCNA quoted the university president as saying that Kim "makes untiring efforts for the education of the country and the well-being of its people."
North Korea suffers chronic food and power shortages and has not released economic data for decades. South Korea's central bank estimates the North's gross national income, an indicator of the average standard of living, was $1,250 per person in 2011 compared with $23,400 in South Korea.
While Pyongyang has shown new signs of trying to reform its economy in recent years, it has also continued to maintain state control. It says it considers economic development to be a top priority, but on an equal level with its nuclear weapons program, which has brought on years of international sanctions and isolation.
Chan's office said he was not available for further comments Thursday and that other university representatives could not speak about the reaction to the decision.
Many Malaysians who wrote on the university's Facebook page and shared information about the decision criticized it. Nick Lim said it was an "insult to the academia," while Daniel Wong wrote that he was "ashamed to have graduated from this institution."
HELP University, established in 1986, is well-known in Malaysia for business and psychology studies. The initials stand for Higher Education Learning Philosophy.
Chan's statement said the North Korean leader, who took power following the December 2011 death of his father, "has accepted" the conferment of the doctorate.