of the first things North Korean defector Ri Kwang-myong did after
reaching the South was to go back to school — 12 years after finishing
Korea claims a 100 percent literacy rate and boasts that its free
compulsory education demonstrates the superiority of its socialist
those who escape from the impoverished country often struggle in the
South from a lack of basic knowledge. Lessons at North Korean schools
are peppered with praise for the leadership, and education is also
disrupted for many by grinding poverty or by defectors’ long journey to
31, is among a handful of adult students at Wooridul School in Seoul,
an educational haven for North Korean students who are too old to go to
appropriate state schools or are lagging academically.
I studied in the North and graduated, I don’t know much,” said Ri, who
went back to school last year, six months after arriving in South Korea.
Much of what he was taught in the North was not applicable in his new home, he added: “Everything I learned is different.”
of the most important subjects in the North Korean education curriculum
is revolutionary studies, which focuses on the ruling Kim family.
starts with two hours a week at the age of 5 — when pupils are taught
the official versions of the childhoods of the country’s founder, Kim Il
Sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, grandfather and father,
respectively, of current leader Kim Jong Un.
afterward in the lessons Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, joins the
pantheon. In secondary school six classes a week are devoted to the
subject — a significant percentage of the total teaching.
AFP visited Manbok high school in Sonbong, North Korea, Principal Ri
Myong Guk said: “Our students grow up in the love and care of the party
and the state. We believe it’s important to educate the students with
political and revolutionary history so they appreciate the love and care
of the great leaders.”
South Korean government describes the North’s education system as
designed to instill “unconditional loyalty to the party and the leader
as the most important aspect of life.”
Mi-yeon, a former kindergarten teacher in the North who fled in 2010,
said, “They are taught as mythical, God-like figures who created the
country and made grenades out of pine cones.”
Teachings about the leaders seep into other subjects as well, she said.
we are teaching about the construction of a building, we have to spend
about five minutes to tell a related story about the leader for
ideological education,” Lee said.
to defectors, many young North Koreans were forced to abandon their
schooling when the economy collapsed in the mid-1990s and a famine
claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Song-hee, a 27-year-old student at Wooridul School, said that after
only four months of elementary school in the North she had to drop out
to help her mother as they struggled to earn a living.
roamed through mountains and hills to collect herbal medicines,” said
Lee, who was almost illiterate when she first came to the institution in
60 students are enrolled at the school, one of seven special-purpose
academies across the country. It offers defectors free education that
its principal says is “crucial” for life in the South.
the very least, re-education in culture, language, social studies and
history is essential,” said Wooridul’s director, Yun Dong-ju.
is an issue — along with gaping social differences, among others — that
would pose fundamental challenges to any scenario of reunification
between the Koreas.
the highly competitive South — where more than 90 percent of the
population finish high school and 40 percent go on to universities —
current newcomers are bound to experience huge gaps in education and
skills, Yun said. But many lack even the basic education normally given
at elementary and middle schools.
school-age defectors, his institution offers a chance to catch up with
South Korean cohorts at public schools — but there are some lessons they
cannot learn there.
Hyung-jong, a researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies,
warned that special-purpose schools may have unwanted side effects by
reducing children’s interactions with South Koreans of their own age.
is not just a place for studying,” he said, “but where a student learns
how to socialize by building relations with the teachers and with their