From the Navy to North Korea to CMC, professor Mike Izbicki discusses his path to pacifism

A man with blonde hair, in a yellow shirt and wearing a backpack, smiles to the side with mountains in the background.
Professor Mike Izbicki, a former naval officer and computer science teacher in North Korea, now focuses on data mining and machine learning at Claremont McKenna College. (Courtesy of CMC)

Growing up, Claremont McKenna College computer science professor Mike Izbicki always knew he wanted to be in the military. 

“When I was a [high school] sophomore, Sept. 11 happened, creating an immediate feeling [that I needed] to serve my country at that time,” Izbicki said. “And then, as a senior in high school, we invaded Iraq, again creating that feeling like I needed to serve.”

Little did he know he would go on to drastically change his views on the subject, earn a doctorate, teach computer science in North Korea and ultimately land a professorship at CMC, where in addition to data mining and machine learning, he seeks to innovate the ways we both conflict and connect with others.

Throughout his time in the Navy, Izbicki slowly started to question the ethics behind his participation, specifically in relation to his Protestant religious beliefs. He reread sections of the Bible — verses like “Love your enemies” and “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” — and compared them to what he was doing professionally. 

“[Military work] is the opposite of loving my enemies. It’s launching missiles at them,” he said, expressing regret for the violence he took place in.

After coming to the conclusion that he could no longer fight, Izbicki began the application process to become a conscientious objector.

“My commanding officer advised me to not talk to anybody else about my conscientious objection,” he said, noting how the process is a fairly solitary one. According to Izbicki, of the small minority that apply to leave the army, the majority are denied. 

Izbicki discussed how the Navy’s process of becoming a conscientious objector made him reevaluate his religion. 

“The process made me document my religiousness in an awkward way, like counting the number of minutes that I pray everyday [to verify my faith],” he said. “Going through exercises like that sort of make you resentful of things like prayer.” 

Izbicki’s application was denied three times before he went to federal court to state his case. 

In 2011, Izbicki’s conscientious objection was finally approved, and his life took a sharp turn. After leaving the Navy, Izbicki enrolled at UC Riverside to earn his doctorate in computer science. During his time there, Izbicki decided to teach in North Korea at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for two semesters. 

“When I left the Navy, I knew I wanted to continue doing hard things that were going to make the world a better place … In the Navy, the only option for doing so was killing people who were my enemies,” Izbicki said, further emphasizing his desire to develop genuine relationships rather than fight. 

While in the Navy, Izbicki was taught that the primary way to create change in the world was through fighting. After his discharge, Izbicki pondered alternate ways for him to continue his passion for social change, particularly among the people who’ve been designated as “enemies” of the U.S. 

“If you take away [war], what’s left is befriending them and making them not your enemies anymore,” he said.

Through his lunches with staff members and meetings with students, Izbicki believed that the program he participated in successfully connected “ordinary North Korean and American citizens together to talk about ordinary things.”

Without the “baggage of politics,” Izbicki believes he was able to build relationships with many of the North Korean people he met.

Nonetheless, there were still some experiences that felt jarring due to Izbicki’s time in the Navy, specifically, his subway commute. According to Izbicki, North Korea’s subway system is the deepest in the world. Over 100 meters underground and a five-minute ride down, its bottom isn’t visible from the top. 

“You’re on this escalator for four or five minutes, and you know that it’s taking so long in order to protect you from nuclear weapons,” he said, explaining how North Korea’s subway system is so deep because it doubles as a bomb shelter.

“This is North Koreans’ daily commute,” Izbicki said. “They’re reminded at least twice on their way to work and on their way back that Americans have been targeting them for decades, whereas there’s no similar reminder in the U.S. of a threat against us.”

Even more appalling to Izbicki was that these bomb shelters were the exact ones that he was taught to destroy. While he was in the Navy, George W. Bush was president and started a nuclear weapons development program called the nuclear bunker-buster, according to The Guardian.

“The idea was to develop nuclear bombs specifically designed to destroy [nuclear-protected infrastructures like] the subway system,” he said. “So it was really weird being in a bomb shelter that I had studied how to destroy.”

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In fall 2017, President Donald Trump issued a decree that American passports were no longer valid for travel in North Korea, the Associated Press reported. Despite purchasing plane tickets and getting his visa approved, Izbicki could no longer return to North Korea.  

Luckily, Izbicki’s journey brought him elsewhere — to the computer science program at CMC. After receiving his doctorate, Izbicki came for the well-rounded liberal arts focus that it offers students. 

“Whether they’re [international relations] students who want to apply machine learning tools to what they’re working on or computer science students [who are] really into the technical details, I love helping [students to] make sure that the things that they’re working on are going to advance society in the ways that we want,” Izbicki said. 

In the long term, he hopes to use his machine learning and computer science skills to help reconcile major world conflicts, like the one between the U.S. and North Korea. 

“I see my career vision as somehow applying machine learning and computer science in a way that’s going to help reconcile people around the world who have conflicts,” Izbicki said.

He’s also developing machine learning algorithms in languages besides English. Listing languages like Spanish, Tagalog and many African tribal languages, Izbicki noted that “there are millions of people who speak all these languages, and currently, they’re not only underserved but completely not served by existing machine learning tools.”

Here at the Claremont Colleges, Izbicki is looking forward to working with students interested in topics “at the intersection of data science, machine learning, computer science and how it actually impacts the real world and makes the world a better place.”

To read more about Izbicki, visit his website at https://izbicki.me/.

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