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’s New Elite Analyzed

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In the News – N.Korea’s New Elite Analyzed

The North Korean elite of Kim Jong-un’s reign are predominantly male graduates of Kim Il-sung University born in Pyongyang or South Pyongan Province.

According to Unification Ministry analysis of 106 core cadres in the military and Workers Party, 35.5 percent were graduates of Kim Il-sung University, the alma mater of Kim Jong-il, followed by Kim Jong-un’s alma mater Kim Il-sung Military University with 17.7 percent, and Kim Chaek University of Technology with 9.7 percent.

Some 18.6 percent were born in South Pyongan Province, 16.3 percent in Pyongyang, 16.3 percent in North Hamgyong Province, and 14.6 percent in South Hamgyong Province. A whopping 94.3 percent are men.

Only 2 percent of cabinet ministers are women, significantly lower than the 11.5 percent in China and 7 percent in Russia.

While the cabinet mostly consists of relatively young technocrats in their 50s or 60s, the Workers Party remains heavily dominated by loyal apparatchiks in their 60s to 80s. The ministry explained that those who have been loyal to three generations of Kim Dynasty from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un form the core of the party, but cabinet members seem more practically oriented.

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In the News – 150 Students to Launch Cross-DMZ Ride

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In the News –  150 Students to Launch Cross-DMZ Ride

A group of university students will launch a journey all the way across the DMZ by bicycle with a ceremony on Yeouido tomorrow.

The event, which is being supported financially by the Ministry of Public Administration and Security, has been organized by two student organizations, Youth and Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea and Youth Future Forum.

A group of more than 150 students is expected to travel 218.38km along the DMZ, learning about national security as they take in the sights and sounds of the counties of Goseong, Inje, Yanggu, Hwacheon, Cheorwon and Yeoncheon, and Paju City.

 

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In the News – Young North Korean Defectors Struggle in the South

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In the News – Young North Korean Defectors Struggle in the South

SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Seong-cheol is a survivor. He left his home in North Korea at the age of 8 for a Dickensian existence, begging on the streets with a pack of boys when famine struck and his parents could not feed him. By his account, he endured several stays in brutal North Korean and Chinese prisons for attempting to cross the border into China.

Kim Kyeong-il, using cellphone, is president of a support group for North Korean-born students at Yonsei University in Seoul.

But when he finally made it to South Korea, and freedom, Mr. Kim faced an obstacle that even his considerable street smarts could not help him overcome. He had placed into a university under a new affirmative action program, but was haunted by the deprivations of his past and quickly slipped behind South Korean classmates who had already made it through years of an extremely competitive education system.

“I just couldn’t shake the memory of hunger from my mind,” said Mr. Kim, 26, who dropped out after just one semester and fell into a deep, alcohol-fueled depression.

Mr. Kim is part of a growing number of defectors who are making their way south — the number has increased sevenfold to 23,000 in the last decade — and posing a growing challenge for South Korea. Attempts at integration, including government-run crash courses on life in the capitalist South, have had mixed results, leaving many North Koreans unable to adapt to South Korea’s high-pressure society or overcome their stereotype as backward country cousins.

The government had hoped that education might close the chasm, offering piecemeal steps over the last decade that evolved into a full-fledged affirmative action program, which gives young North Koreans the chance to bypass grueling entrance exams to enter top universities. Now, even that stopgap measure appears to be failing as large numbers of North Koreans are dropping out, creating new worries that they and other defectors could become part of a permanent underclass.

“These children are simply not equipped for South Korea’s fiercely competitive society,” said Shin Hyo-sook, a specialist in education at the North Korean Refugees Foundation, a newly created government research institute. “They suffer identity issues due to their extreme experiences.” Continue reading

Love Across Borders

Have you ever fallen in love? Not the kind where you want to be with someone every minute of the day, but the kind where you would wait for that person every minute of the day. Perhaps, people experience these feelings more often as they move farther apart chasing after dreams or journeying in search of themselves in the transnational world we inhabit. But Pham Ngoc Canh, a man from Vietnam, had fallen in love with a woman he had met when he had studied chemistry as a university student. As Mr. Canh reminisces about his sweetheart, he recalls that he first caught a glimpse of her through a laboratory door. Even in that moment, he had wished to marry her, but something beyond his control kept them from being together for thirty years.

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In the News – Students Targeted for Rocket ‘Rumors’

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In the News – Students Targeted for Rocket ‘Rumors’

North Korea detains university students over a failed rocket launch.

North Korean students work on their computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, April 11, 2012.

Authorities in North Korea are hunting down college students suspected of “spreading rumors” about a recent failed rocket launch amid warnings the reclusive state may stage a nuclear test.

North Korea defied international warnings and fired a long-range rocket on April 13 saying that it would carry a satellite into space, but the rocket crashed into the sea just minutes after takeoff, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and its allies who called the act a “provocative” move.

New leader Kim Jong Un had shrugged off international concerns and pushed ahead with the launch in conjunction with the 100th birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the deceased founder of the state.

Now, according to students, security personnel at some universities in North Korea are being instructed to take those who talk about the rocket failure into custody.

“The authorities are hunting down students who have spread rumors about the failed launch of the Kwangmyung-sung-3 [satellite] at the Hoeryong Teacher Training College (now renamed Kim Jong Suk Teacher Training College),” said one student from North Hamyong province, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Continue reading

In the News – Students Begin 31-Hour Fast for North Korean Defectors

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In the News – Students Begin 31-Hour Fast for North Korean Defectors

Beginning on Tuesday, members of Harvard Human Rights in North Korea (HRiNK) will fast for 31 hours to raise awareness about the 31 North Korean defectors recently repatriated by the Chinese government. The defectors face imprisonment, forced labor, and possible execution in their native country.

For HRiNK co-president Rainer A. Crosett ’14, the fast is an opportunity to correct Harvard students’ misconceptions about North Korea.

“They have the image of the Kim family, you know, and nuclear weapons,” he said. “People don’t actually know that there are, for example, 200,000 people living in concentration camps.”

Crosett added that the organized fast highlights the daily reality of famine and food shortages for many North Koreans.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea because the experience of so many of the North Korean people and refugees is one of intense hunger,” he said.

HRiNK co-president Stephanie Choi ’13 said that the latest defections do not represent isolated incidents. She added that many North Koreans have previously risked imprisonment, torture, and death to reunite with loved ones in South Korea and escape oppression. Continue reading