Education in North Korea is assumed to be overwhelmingly centred around the country’s guiding ideology. That isn’t a exaggeration. Copies of old textbooks in North Korea give quite clear examples, such as sums asking how many American Imperialists were killed and so on. This kind of thing gives rise to misleading beliefs that North Koreans are “brainwashed”, which patronizes their real ability to think critically about the rest of the world. I after all, learnt from one experience that in North Korea, children are still children. Despite the country’s politics, they are not scorned with a burning hatred of the outside world, but are just like any other children. In early in 2016 we got the chance to visit a North Korean middle school in Pyongyang. Here’s the story.
One afternoon, we got off the bus and proceeded up towards a field and a yard outside a rather humbling school building, with some ageing flats around it. This could have been any school in the world. Remarkably, outside, teenage boys were playing a small game of football amongst themselves in the yard. Just like I and most boys did in the UK. They were laughing, shouting and playing happily, all baring strong contrasts to the myths that people can’t enjoy themselves in the DPRK. It was refreshing to be reminded of something so normal and so innocent in a country which is endlessly vilified or treat with hysterical levels of suspicion. Despite the cold, I was warm at this.
The North Korean students play football
Of course, I was not warm once we went inside. Despite it being a school, there was sadly despite temperatures being around 0C that day, no heating. Thus as we entered it was kind of like an ice cave. Without any surprise, the first thing we noticed on entering was a large picture of Kim Jong Il on the wall with children huddled round him. Always a subtle reminder that the presence of the regime is always there and, of course the symbolism the Kims are the symbolic fathers of the nation, and of course, the teachers too. A very strong representation of such in the context of a school. Mind you, not everything was like this. We were took around to have a look. There were, like any school in the world, samples of students work and group work pinned on noticeboards, all coming across in the same innocent and childlike way you would find anywhere else. Politics or not, school was school here.
The picture of KIm Jong Il with the children at the entrance, note the flowers beneath
Yet still, the political element continued to permeate all things. We were led upstairs into a hall with a stage. Again, just like you would find anywhere else; except of course, with the addition of a Korean slogan on the top. We were made to sit on some chairs which were placed in front of the stage, then, out came a number of schoolgirls ready to sing, dance and perform to us in the typical North Korean style. As is as the norm, they were all very highly disciplined, with extensive practice and application of memory skills. They sang to us a range of songs and played a series of instruments. Most of the songs were of course professing loyalty to Kim Il Sung. After they had finished the main performance, they then pulled us up to dance with them a bit in a circle. It was of course a bit shy for some us, but it was nevertheless fun. Once we had finished, they gave us a thanks in Korean (Comsahabnida), bowed to us and we took a group photo. They shown us nothing but humility.
The schoolgirls perform
After this, it was time to leave the school and get back to the bus. My feelings were mixed. We had witnessed glimpses of normality, but normality that was blended in deeply with the routine obligations of North Korean life. Nevertheless, it felt genuine. It was absolutely real. What we had witnessed was not an attempt at Potempkinism which North Korea is routinely accused of (which is sometimes accurate, but sometimes not and took to hysterical proportions by confirmation bias), but it was largely authentic. Whilst of course, the point may be made that we did not get to see any real teaching, be that intentional or not, the experience was ultimately one of value. It was again a timely remainder of the normality of North Koreans, never forget that.
You can get the opportunity to visit a North Korean school as part of our Easter Delegation Program. Except this time, we’ll be witnessing a class being taught! Don’t miss out!