North Korea’s International University

A trail of thirtyish couples with coffees in hand floated on the streets this morning, like wood planks and barrels from a wreck at sea. Gradually their density increased as I approached a hulking shape looming through the fog, which turned out to be an elementary school releasing parents with free coffees as they returned to their now-childless homes.

It’s back-to-school season in America.

North and South Korea both operate on different school calendars; for them, the school year begins in spring. When I taught English in South Korea, the school year ended in December and started again in early March. North Korean schools start about a month later at the beginning of April.

The difference is probably hard to imagine for most Americans; it conflicts with our whole concept of summer as a time of vacation, of idleness and play, of long days to fill with things other than school.

But for all the difference, going back to school is pretty much the same in spirit everywhere. Kids still have that anxious, excited energy to them and haven’t yet rediscovered the boredom of regular school days. And parents still want to take photos with their darlings before leaving them.

Parents take photos with their children on the first day of school at Pyongyang Middle School No. 1 on April 2, 2012. (Photo credit AP Photo / Jon Chol Jin). 

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In the News – N. Korea gives school uniforms to mark founder’s birth

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In the News – N. Korea gives school uniforms to mark founder’s birth

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) — North Korea is giving new uniforms to all schoolchildren to mark the centenary of the birth of its late founder Kim Il-sung, the country’s official media reported Saturday.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said uniforms will be provided to all primary and secondary schoolchildren and students attending universities. Kim’s birthday falls on Sunday and is considered the most important holiday in the communist country.

The media outlet said the distribution of uniforms is the legacy of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who died unexpectedly in December. Pyongyang first provided uniforms to schoolchildren in 1959, and the latest move is assumed to be aimed at strengthening the loyalty of the people to their leaders.

The communist country also unveiled a huge statue of Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill, alongside that of his father, to showcase the hereditary succession of rule by the Kim family. At present the country is run by Kim Jung-un, son of former leader Kim Jong-il and grandson of the nation’s founder.

Besides giving out uniforms, the KCNA said Kim Jung-un has given 2.32 billion won (US$2.04 million) in scholarships to children of Korean nationals in Japan who have supported the North Korean regime.

The country has given scholarships to Koreans living in Japan totaling 658 billion won in the past.

Original article can be found here.

In the News – Kim Jong-un did not adapt well to school in Switzerland: report

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In the News – Kim Jong-un did not adapt well to school in Switzerland: report

BRUSSELS, April 3 (Yonhap) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not adapt well to an international school in Switzerland in the 1990s and his grades were poor, a news report has said.

Kim was absent for 75 days and 105 days in his first and second year at the International School of Bern, respectively, Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche reported Sunday, citing unidentified sources. Continue reading

The Death of Kim Jong-Il: Painting Perspective Part III

Having looked at various articles after the death of Kim Jong-Il, I started to reflect upon the Korean friends who identified with North Korea in Japan and the few North Korean people that I knew personally. Of course, their opinions could not be anymore diverse because of the different backgrounds they had come from or the different perspectives that they held. Also, the relationship that my Korean friends in Japan had to North Korea is very different from the students who had actually been born in North Korea and escaped while they were still so young.

While I researched the Korean minority in Japan last summer before my internship with the Ministry of Unification, I had the opportunity to interview a few people who had visited North Korea while they were high school students. Until North Korean education schools in Japan had started to request more government support from the Japanese government, the classrooms had featured pictures of the two Kim leaders as a regulation declared by North Korean administration who had in the past received visits from teachers who would report on the progress of the children’s education. Therefore, I had asked my interviewees about their thoughts on Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

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What I Never Learned in School

In my schooling I don’t remember learning anything about North Korea. At all. If anything existed in my U.S. History book about the Korean War and its aftermath, it was not only glossed over by my class but also completely ignored by myself since we were promised that it wasn’t necessary for the AP History Test (it was, to my dismay). All I ever knew about North Korea was based on a magazine cover that was held by push-pins onto the bulletin board in our history classroom—an ominous cartoon of Kim Jung Il and lots of nukes. In college I didn’t learn much more—in my class in Korea I learned about the Korean War and resulting separation of the Koreas, but nothing about North Korea after the fact. All I’ve learned about North Korea has been from an International Relations class that had a week focused on dealing with nuclear war and the internship this summer. Continue reading

Master Key

It’s so nice to see these kids having a good time. Knowing that they’re just normal kids.

We’re at Hangyeorae Boarding School, the place where North Korean teenage defectors go to catch up with the crazy South Korean education system.

I watched the high school boys play soccer one night in the rain. We were supposed to go take a tour of the community garden, but when 7:00 came some boys were rounding up their friends and trying to track down cleats and a ball and we knew that the garden thing couldn’t compete. So instead a few friends and I walked up the hill to watch them play. A typical high school boys’ impromptu soccer game of Shirts vs. Skins.

One of the first things you notice is the far team’s goalie, a boy known to us as Master Key—if there is a better nickname I am not aware. Continue reading

Hangyeorae Boarding School

James—standing at the border between darkness and a new day?

An hour to the south of Seoul there is a boarding school attended exclusively by North Korean defectors.

It’s a modernist-looking building set back in the mountains, about fifteen minutes away from nowhere. Middle and high school students attend. I have spent a fair amount of time in other schools in Korea, and this one feels completely different. Not least in design: although South Korea seems to have hired the exact same architect to draft all of its other public schools, this school follows a different paradigm, with massive gray concrete forming twin north and south buildings, divided by a four-story open-air hallway that creates a deep gulf between them; but the buildings are joined by the congress of these high school kids going back and forth between them, the whole thing a potent architectural metaphor for the Korean peninsula.

But, beyond design, the general spirit of the place is very different from other schools I’ve seen. This school felt remarkable. Continue reading