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Inside North Korea

Private Education in N. Korea



South Korea is notorious for its fierce competition in university entrances and afterschool private education. These days, even office workers are eager to learn something in the evening to capitalize on the shorter 52-hour workweek so it is easy to see that the market for private education is expanding. 

It appears that the situation is similar in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Today, we’ll talk about why private education is booming in North Korea with Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education. 

The private education market is growing in North Korea. In principle, only public education is permitted in the communist state. But private education began to spread after the collapse of the state rationing system forced North Korean residents to survive on their own. In the process, some parents who were able to accumulate wealth turned to private tutoring to better educate their children. 

Teachers, on their part, found it difficult to make ends meet if they were not given rations because their salaries were far from adequate. The difficulty in earning a living drove many teachers to the market for private education.

Private education for computer science, technology, foreign languages, mathematics, art, music and physical education is spreading fast, as success in these areas can guarantee the future to some extent without being affected by the ever-changing political situation. 

In theory, private education is banned in the socialist North, which espouses free, public education. However, after the severe economic contraction in the 1990s, public education crumbled, prompting many teachers to work as private tutors because since it was difficult to make a living with their meager salaries. 

A change in the operation of the education system has also fueled the expansion of the private education market. North Korean authorities were unable to run all the regular schools properly due to an insufficient education budget, and they selectively supported elite schools in order to use their limited resources more effectively. Parents were worried that their children, if left at regular schools, might end up being laborers, while students who were admitted to elite schools were raised to be high-ranking officials. 

So, wealthy individuals resorted to send their kids to top schools, no matter how expensive it was, and intensive competition for those schools has led the craze for private education. 

Smart students from across North Korea can apply for universities in the capital, while universities in local provinces may admit students in their regions. Of course, the level of schools in the capital is much higher than that of their local counterparts. It is very challenging to enter top schools in the capital, such as Kim Il-sung University and Kimchaek University of Technology. 

For university entrance, the North administers a preliminary exam nationwide. It is similar to South Korea’s College Scholastic Aptitude Test. Based on their scores and percentile rankings, test-takers decide which university they will apply for. Competition for college entrance is quite intense, just like in South Korea. 

In North Korea, entering university is a shortcut to future success and an elite course to become a party officer. Admission to prestigious universities, in particular, ensures a successful and comfortable life. It comes as no surprise that high-ranking officials and rich people are eager to do anything to send their children to prestigious universities. 

For college entrance, students must take exams in the revolutionary history of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, math, physics, chemistry, Korean language and literature and a foreign language. Questions are in short-answer or essay form. To be eligible for Kim Il-sung University, students must score in the top 0.4 percent.

To help their children get better scores, wealthy parents let private tutors teach their kids in these subjects. In many cases, students hoping to get into top universities receive private lessons directly from graduate students or professors at those universities. These days, even younger children are offered private tutoring. 

Testimonies from North Korean defectors show that some elementary school kids in the North receive private lessons in computers or foreign languages. If students study at private learning institutes for foreign languages while they are in elementary or middle school, they have a higher chance of getting into the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies later. 

A teacher may go to a student’s house for private tutoring, or a group of students may study at a tutor’s home. 

After completing a five-year elementary school course, North Korean students take an exam to enter middle school. They prefer to enter Jeil Middle School, a school for gifted students located in each province. Graduates from this school are all admitted to top universities such as Kim Il-sung University, Kimchaek University of Technology or Pyongyang Medical College. Foreign language education starts pretty early—in some cases starting in preschool, because people who are good at foreign languages can easily earn foreign currency 

Private tutoring is mostly held at teachers’ or students’ houses. If there are too many students, parents may even rent a building by using their personal connections. But private education, as noted before, is illegal, at least on paper. 

Parents and teachers will face punishment if they are caught engaging in private education. But those who provide private tutoring to their children are rich people, who typically have a close relationship with those in power. They can solve the problem easily through bribes. Against this backdrop, private education is spreading in the North. 

North Korean education authorities are strictly monitoring and controlling ever-growing private education, but it is not easy to crack down on violators. Those in charge of crackdowns are none other than the parents who provide private tutoring to their children. Even if they are caught, they bribe their way out of trouble. For parents who can afford to pay for private tutoring, bribes are not really a heavy burden. 

The monthly tutorial fees for math, physics and a foreign language are between 7 and 15 US dollars, while a month of piano lessons costs about 30 dollars, which is equivalent to 48 kilograms of rice. 

Many more parents in North Korea are expected to spare no expense to give their children a private education, regardless of regulations. 

The current Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea places lots of emphasis on science and technology. Considering that, I imagine the private education market in the North will expand further unless the public education system is perfectly restored. But normalizing public education requires a massive government investment and it will place a huge burden on students if regular schools depend on them for school operations. Without additional investment in public education, the market for private tutoring will only swell. 

Economic hardships in the 1990s brought about a major change in almost all areas in North Korea, including education. To overcome the economic difficulties, North Korea shifted the focus of its educational policy to the cultivation of experts in science and technology, foreign languages and computers. In other words, the nation attempted to achieve national development quickly through education for the talented. 

But it turned out that this attempt led to an overheated private education market, which is expected to become even larger down the road unless there is an improvement on the polarization of education in the nation.

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