A Crack in the Wall: North Korea’s Educational Paradox

In North Korea, children do not grow up playing tag. Instead, a favourite playground game is pointing toy guns at the heads of American soldiers in military games at school. The posters issued by the party propaganda machine litter the walls of education establishments across the country, complemented by drawings by schoolchildren as young as 4-years-old, who depict US soldiers being battered by North Korean loyalists. For children in the world’s most authoritarian regime, their first day of nursery marks the start of a march down an assembly line of ideological indoctrination which gradually usurps their minds until they emerge parroting the party line: an unconditional hatred of America, and an unconditional embrace of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un. In a country where the school curriculum prizes such ideology just as much as learning to count to ten, there is little wonder why the edifice built by the totalitarian regime shows little sign of crumbling.

Image courtesy Edward N. Johnson, © 2008. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy Edward N. Johnson, © 2008. Some rights reserved.

However, a glimmer of hope has surfaced with the birth of a new educational establishment in the capital Pyongyang. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) is the first of its kind in North Korea and exists as an utter paradox: a Western-funded, English-medium university which employs American lecturers to educate students living in one of the world’s most closed and aggressively anti-American regimes. Even more remarkably, the man given permission to set up PUST and the sponsors who have funded it are Christians, considering the severe persecution of Christians in North Korea has resulted in the country being consistently ranked the world’s most dangerous place to practice this faith.[1] The Korean-American founder and president of the university, Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim, who opened a similar school in China and was once even imprisoned by the North Korean regime on the accusation of being a spy, communicated his incredulity when he said “they fully trust me and have given me all authority to operate these schools. Can you believe it?”[2]. Considering the appalling track record of the North Korean regime, it certainly is hard to believe.

Both the lecturers and students at the university face a momentous task. The 500 students handpicked to attend by Kim Jong-un’s regime, who are sons of some of North Korea’s most powerful men, sing patriotic songs giving thanks to their Great Leader as they march to class. At class, lecturers coming from countries that their students have been conditioned to hate must dissect their listeners’ minds from a lifetime of indoctrination that has been issued by the leader they devote their lives to. For the students, a window has been opened to them about an outside world they have never seen before. Learning in English about Western concepts such as a free market economy can be hard to grapple with when all they have ever known is a system of state control. This year a BBC journalist, who is the first and only foreign visitor to be granted access to the university, revealed the uphill battle the students face when he asked a class if any of them knew who Michael Jackson was. As he was met by a sea of blank stares and a query of “Is he your President?”, there is no doubt that these students have a lot of catching up to do.

As for the expectations concerning PUST’s impact on the future, North Korea and the West are poles apart. For the totalitarian regime, the hope is that exposing select students to Western ideas and technology will help to sustain the party’s future stronghold: an obvious priority when a policy of “guns before butter”[3] has killed over 2 million since 1990, and crippling economic mismanagement has made the country reliant on foreign aid.[4] On the other hand, for the international community, the hope of PUST is rather different. For patron and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea Lord Alton, “the hope is the young people who come through that university will be people who will question, and who will ask the right questions about the ideology, about the system, the way that the country is structured”[5]. PUST may only be able to work with a very small handful of North Korea’s elite, but the teachings by this unique university to North Korea’s next generation may be the seed that will grow into defiance on a larger scale.

However, the daily life of students at PUST may be too much of a paradoxical one to allow this seed to grow. The students are really receiving two educations, and the second may be halting the progress of the first. Western lectures are supplemented by lessons in regime ideology, which gives students their daily dose of brainwashing to ensure they do not stray too far from the regime’s dogma. A typical day is peppered with breaks to worship Kim Jong-un, and weekends are spent scrubbing his monument on campus well into the night. Even in their Western lectures, “access” to the internet is hardly freedom to surf the World Wide Web, as students must let a censor know beforehand the sites they want to visit and, like the rest of North Korea, accessing international news and social media is simply out of the question. The fate of one of the American business lecturer’s, Sandra Lee Moynihan, is also illustrative of the regime’s tight grip  – she has been blacklisted by the regime after being deemed “too outspoken” in class[6].

The inevitable question thus presents itself: is it all worth it? For the Director for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu, the presence of a Western-funded university in a country with such unspeakable human rights violations is a price that is simply too high to pay. However, the journey towards freedom in North Korea has to start somewhere. The arrival of PUST signals a realisation by the regime that some changes in its international relations are required, and that its ability to survive in the future necessitates a certain level of understanding about how the rest of the world operates. Despite the regime’s expectations that PUST will help strengthen its hold on the country, the door opened to the outside world for these students has left room for the possibility that they will be led to question the regime, rather than simply perpetuate it. Of course PUST is a modest first step, and it may well only be capable of making incremental change to a few minds in a brainwashed country. Yet, by authorising the existence of an establishment like PUST, the regime may have involuntarily laid the first brick in its own demise. Change starts with hope. And at the very least, a drop of hope now exists in a vast ocean of despair.[7]

[1] http://www.opendoorsuk.org/resources/worldwatch/north_korea.php

[2] “Educating North Korea”. In Panorama, BBC1. 3rd February 2014, 20:30

[3] http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/FD01Dg04.html

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15256929

[5] “Educating North Korea”. In Panorama, BBC1. 3rd February 2014, 20:30

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