SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has told university students to put their studies on hold for a year to join efforts to revitalise its broken economy ahead of its heralded emergence next year as a "great and prosperous nation", a top diplomat and media reports said.
The British ambassador to North Korea, Peter Hughes, said while there had been no official announcement from Pyongyang, students in the capital had been mobilised to work at nearby construction sites until April 2012.
"Some two years ago the DPRK (North Korea) announced that it would build 200,000 units of accommodation in the city to ease the chronic housing shortage," he said.
"To date only some 10,000 units have been built, so the students have been taken out of universities in order to speed up the construction of the balance before major celebrations take place in April 2012 to commemorate the 100th birthday of the founder of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung."
Hughes confirmed in an email to Reuters the remarks originally carried by the University World News website.
He told Reuters: "For clarity I should point out that the universities have not been closed as the teaching staff, post-graduate students, and foreign students remain on the campuses."
University World News said there had been similar instances of universities halting lessons during the famine of the 1990s. It said universities would be closed from June 27 for up to 10 months while students were sent to work on farms, in factories and in construction.
Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted sources as saying that the North's leadership told all universities, except those for graduating seniors and foreign students, to cancel classes until next year.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul, which oversees relations with North Korea, could not confirm the reports.
The destitute North has stated it will "open the gate to a great, prosperous and powerful nation" in 2012, as its strives to shore up its economy and ensure a smooth succession from leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
Experts say the North often enlists students and city workers to help work on farms and construction sites as part of efforts to keep the state's creaking economy operational.
A diplomatic source observed that during a visit in May the fields outside of the capital were full of manual workers, as well as a few emaciated oxen, preparing for spring planting.
The impoverished North relies almost entirely on manual labour as the moribund centrally planned economy does not have the hard currency to replace decades-old farm machinery from the Soviet era.
This year, the secretive North has pleaded for more food aid from the outside world, complaining that bad weather, rising global food prices and the termination of aid from principle donors South Korea and the United States had slashed supplies.
Washington sent human rights envoy Robert King to the North in May to assess the situation, and it is still weighing whether to resume food aid suspended in 2008 over a monitoring dispute.
South Korean officials suspect the North wants to stockpile food to give as presents to the people for next year's big celebrations.
They say the North maybe also be trying to hoard food ahead of a third nuclear test, which would likely provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.
Editing by Robert Birsel