People's paradise, scholars' purgatory

May 9, 2003

In North Korea, students and academics struggle with limited resources, hunger, cold and the demands of a totalitarian state. But, says Jim Hoare, many remain curious and upbeat.

Conventional journalism dismisses Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, as a "Stalinist nightmare city" of massive high-rise blocks and few people. The reality, for at least three seasons of the year, is rather different. It is green and pleasant, with wide boulevards, many trees and delightful river walks. And in the spring large parts of Pyongyang become crowded with young people and their parents. They gather in the city, as anxious as their counterparts elsewhere in the world, to learn how they fared in the annual college entrance examinations.

For Pyongyang is very much the educational centre of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Most North Korean statistics are state secrets, so nobody can be sure of the number of students in the capital. But the figure must run into tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, in a city supposedly of 2 million people.

The range of institutions is impressive. In addition to North Korea's main centre of academic excellence - Kim Il Sung University, with a declared 16,000 students - other universities and colleges cover a host of disciplines from music and dance to medicine, from foreign studies to construction. The Mansudae Art Studio trains artists, while the Grand People's Study House doubles as the national library and an educational centre that operates at several levels. In 1980, Kim Il Sung said there were 170 higher learning institutions in the country and 480 higher specialised schools.

All educational sectors, however, have suffered because of the economic problems that have battered North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the country repeatedly claims to follow a policy of self-reliance - part of the juche philosophy attributed to the late Kim Il Sung - its economy has always depended on the support of its allies. The Soviet Union and its satellites provided a market for North Korean goods while supplying the resources needed to make them. Its disappearance dealt a heavy blow to an economy that was already struggling.

To make matters worse, in the mid-1990s a series of natural disasters struck the country. Unable to feed large sections of the population, the government appealed for international assistance. This came, but not before famine conditions developed in some parts of the country.

The effect of this crisis on education was mixed. There has been a progressive deterioration in conditions in direct proportion to distance from Pyongyang. In some rural areas, schools seem to have stopped functioning entirely. Shortages of paper have meant that textbooks are not replaced. In many places, Unicef found parents reduced to copying textbooks by hand so that their children would have something from which to work.

The tertiary sector also suffered, although not in equal measure. Kim Il Sung University has clearly escaped some of the consequences of the shortage of funds visible at other establishments, though even its modern buildings look a bit dilapidated. All institutions have suffered from restrictions on access to foreign currency, and all purchases of foreign material seem to have stopped about 1991.

Even the Grand People's Study House appears to have no budget to buy books or journals from abroad. The British embassy supplied some volumes that were generally gratefully received, though usually with the request to send scientific ones next time. Sometimes we could help, sometimes we could not.

When I left Pyongyang, I sent off some tapes of British and Irish folk music to the Grand People's Study House. Hitherto, its only example of the genre seemed to be a home-made tape of Billy Connolly that it had acquired from somewhere.

Teaching hospitals lack modern equipment and are unable to follow recent developments in medical science. We began supplying copies of the British Medical Journal when we learnt that all North Korean subscriptions had been cancelled.

Years of poor diet and the lack of domestic and institutional heating have weakened students and staff. Schools and universities shut for the worst of the winter, but it can be very cold in March and November, too. Hunger and cold do not encourage study.

In terms of content, practical and technical subjects appear to be taught no differently from elsewhere. Methods of teaching can seem old-fashioned to those educated in the West, but they would not surprise Japanese, Chinese or South Koreans. Standards are high in the arts; China apparently sends many students to North Korea for training. In fields such as philosophy and economics, however, teaching and research are dominated by the juche system. Even Marxism-Leninism is no longer taught. Students are thus cut off from knowledge of how the rest of the world thinks. This does not make it easy for them to absorb concepts that lie outside juche.

In other ways, too, all education is subjected to the demands of the state.

From nursery onwards, children are taught that they are, thanks to the Great Leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, living in a paradise on earth.

All benefits are deemed to flow from the state. This indoctrination continues all through university and beyond.

Since summer 2002, it appears that all graduates have been required to spend time in the army as a means of further reinforcing loyalty to the state and the leaders. Students were already expected to take part in the rice planting, transplanting and harvest work. For much of the 2001-02 academic year, large numbers of undergraduates were pulled out of classes so that they could rehearse for the mass gymnastics display - "Arirang" - that was performed from late April 2002. These were not short-term absences of a few hours, but week upon week of eight to ten-hour rehearsals, followed by months of performances. And if not practising for "Arirang", students were being trained for the Army Day parade. One foreign teacher taught her second-year German class for a week at the beginning of the academic year and did not see them again until the third term.

But nobody ever expressed any discontent about their situation to me.

Academics were friendly and courteous. Some of them had been abroad, usually to the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or China. A few had been further afield to attend conferences. They retain a desire for knowledge and education. Individual academics can be knowledgeable and interesting in debate. Even the Ministry of Education fights hard, though without much success, against the Ministry of Culture over the issue of students being taken away from their studies for non-essential work. Given the chance, many real scholars might emerge from behind the juche screen. One can only hope that such a chance will come before too long.

Jim Hoare was the British charge d'affaires to Pyongyang from February 2001 to October 2002. He has worked on Korean issues since the mid-1970s and is president of the British Association for Korean Studies.

Lecturing for the great leader

When I saw the advertisement in The Guardian, I thought the chance to teach in a North Korean university would be a professional and personal challenge. I have not been disappointed.
Living in the capital Pyongyang is fascinating and I am enjoying it very much. The foreign community is supportive, from a diplomatic level right down to non-governmental organisations. This is also probably one of the safest cities for a woman. I walk alone at any time and never feel threatened - much to my mum's relief.

I teach English as a foreign language, as well as delivering lectures on British culture. My institution, the University of Education, has a large campus with many classrooms, meeting halls and numerous murals of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, as can be found all over the city.

Resources are limited. I brought many of my teaching aids with me.

All my students will graduate into the teaching profession. Though highly motivated, they were at first quite passive in lectures. But they have responded well to a more communicative classroom and they pick things up quickly.

I am the first foreigner they have met, so they had to deal with cultural as well as language differences.

All students wear uniforms and most live on campus in the dormitories. They study most standard subjects, as well as the works of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and revolutionary history.

None of them has a job, though they work in the university cleaning rooms and the grounds.

As a teacher, I have great autonomy. The government exerts no direct control over content in my classroom. I'm not forced to teach anything.

I arrange my own syllabus from the materials brought in by the British Council. I have been politely asked not to use some of them, but I have given lectures on the media, the UK's political structures and so on, with no problems.

Of course, I have to be culturally sensitive and would not teach using "inappropriate" materials such as overt content or an anti-Communist message.

A British teacher in Pyongyang, name withheld, spoke to Caroline Davis.

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