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Inside North Korea

Online Learning in N. Korea



South Korea’s new school year has started with online classes, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.This unprecedented move began on April 9 for students in their final years of junior high schools. Remote classes for other grades will start no later than April 20.

Just like South Korea, North Korea has postponed the first day of school and offered online classes instead, based on an educational program called “The Friend of Top Students 2.0.” Here’s Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education to explain what this program is and how online education is carried out in North Korea.

The computer program helps students in lower-level middle schools, higher-level high schools and First Middle School for the gifted. It helps them review their lessons and evaluate their abilities, themselves, through problem solving. Teachers may use the program to help students study. The online courses are also chosen by many students hoping to enter universities. They cover various subjects such as the Korean language, history, physical geography, mathematics, English, physics, chemistry and biology. The program is tailored to the nation’s 12-year education system. A North Korean propaganda outlet has claimed that the program is very effective since it helps students in different grades choose different subjects. But it is uncertain how efficiently the students can actually use the program. We cannot help but question its usefulness, considering that there might be a gap between what North Korea claims and what is actually happening.

A North Korean propaganda website called Meari says that this program has drawn an enthusiastic response from students, teachers and parents. This is at a time when the state extended the vacation period for students to prevent the spread of the infectious disease.

As we know, online learning requires Internet-accessible devices. Professor Chung explains how far digital tools and infrastructure for e-learning have developed in North Korea.

It would be fair to say that North Korea simply cannot afford to build the fourth-generation or 4G, much less 5G, telecommunications network, in terms of technology and funds. The country finds it extremely difficult to draw outside the investment needed to introduce long-term evolution or LTE technology, due to various problems including the nuclear issue. I guess it will be hard for North Korea to move forward from the current 3G network.

North Korean authorities restrict the use of WiFi devices and wired Internet connections, in a move to prevent local residents from being exposed to outside information. Not surprisingly, North Korea has limitations in providing online classes to students all across the nation.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s data, only 18.7 percent of North Korean households have a computer. The low percentage shows that only a small number of students can afford to take remote classes at home. Simultaneously released by UNICEF and North Korean authorities in 2018, the findings were based on a survey on 8,500 North Korean households nationwide. The survey looked into multiple indicators that influenced the lives of women and children.

According to the UNICEF report, among North Koreans aged between 15 and 49, about 44 percent of men said they had used computers in the previous three months, while the percentage for women was 32.8. Considering that the figures include their computer use at workplaces, percentages for home use will be even lower.

North Korea encourages its people to use the “intranet,” a type of internal network. But people have to go to particular computer-related places to actually use it, so they have restrictions in using it at home. Unlike the Internet, the intranet does not provide much information. Only with special authorization, users are allowed to access and download what they need. So, even intranet access is strictly limited. Moreover, North Korea’s computer distribution rate is pretty low. Due to the poor infrastructure for e-learning, it is difficult for local students to search information freely and participate in online classes.

Another problem is that computers cost much in North Korea. For smooth remote learning, each household must have a desktop or notebook. In reality, however, it is difficult to purchase it. Professor Chung explains how North Korea distributes computers and how expensive they are. 

Most families find it hard to have a computer because of high prices. Merchants in China import a large quantity of second-hand computers with U.S. brand labels such as Dell and HP at cheap prices. They then sell them to North Korean computer dealers at around 300 dollars each. Computers made by South Korea or Japan are rarely found in North Korea because the authorities prohibit their entry.

Of course, the dealers resell the computers in North Korea at higher prices, like 400 or 500 dollars. An average North Korean worker earns a monthly salary of 3,000 North Korean won. Considering that one dollar is traded for 8,000 North Korean won in the black market, North Koreans have to save money for a very, very long time to get a computer. So, it is difficult for workers, in general, to buy computers.

Also, there is a wide gap between central regions and local provinces in the use of digital equipment and information. The start of e-learning, therefore, may create an educational gap between different regions in the North. Apparently being aware of this problem, the authorities seek to narrow the “digital divide” and solve regional disparities in online learning preparedness. As proper examples, North Korea cites educational programs such as a written exam system called “Knowledge, Morals and Body” and an English learning program known as “Rainbow.”

In an editorial on April 1, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper pointed out that the educational gap between central and local regions cannot be bridged. Not unless educators in local areas accept the new programs properly. It shows that the North Korean government does offer educational programs including “Rainbow” and stresses their importance. However, local regions are not yet prepared to execute them. The programs enable central and local regions to share educational data quickly. But even if the useful programs are introduced, they cannot produce a desired effect if each region is not equipped with necessary infrastructure.

In North Korea, the computer penetration rate is less than 20 percent, while the level of Internet service is low. The nation’s propaganda outlet actively promotes that students can study themselves by learning online. But it is uncertain if the claim is true. Still, the country is expected to try to carry out distance learning more extensively amid growing fears of COVID-19.

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