Unification Media Group (UMG): Although Kim Jong Un has been emphasizing the need to eliminate corrupt practices, North Korean society has been suffering from widespread corruption for decades. Even university students consider corruption in schools a fact of daily life. Today, we are here to discuss North Korea’s education system with reporter Seol Song Ah.
Reporter Seol Song Ah (Seol): North Korean students encounter corruption from an early age at school. Today, I would like to discuss corruption in North Korea’s universities, which are supposed to be the ‘ivory towers of knowledge.’
In North Korean universities, the final exam starts in the middle of July. Every year in July and December, the preparation for final exams intensifies, but the evaluation system isn’t very fair. As a result, complaints from the professors and students are increasing as the vicious cycle of corruption continues.
UMG: We recently reported that the evaluation of high school final exams is also problematic. It’s surprising to hear that such practices also exist in universities.
Seol: It may appear that this is due to corrupt professors, but it comes from the deeper realities of North Korean society. The average salary of a North Korean university professor is around 4,000 KPW, which isn’t even enough to buy a kilo of rice. So the professors have no choice but to ask for bribes in order to survive.
The professors cannot live off the meager corn rations given to them, so they look forward to the final exams period when students pay bribes. The corruption in the education system has already been standardized.
UMG: You mentioned that students pay bribes to the professors. Can you elaborate?
Seol: When the final exam approaches, students collect money to pay the professors from each class. The average grade awarded for each class is determined on the basis of the amount of bribe money paid. In other words, if a class president pays a bribe to the professor teaching the history of revolution, the average grade for the class members in that subject gets higher. For example, if the original grade for a student was 3 or 4 points, the professor will give the student 4 or 5 points instead.
In regards to this, a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on July 19 that, “At Chongjin Medical University, one class recently collected 100,000 KPW for each professor to get good grades at the final exams. They gave 100,000 KPW to each professor teaching Revolution 1, 2, and 3 (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Suk) and to professors teaching major subjects, which was 600,000 KPW in total.” This means that in a class of 30 students, each student has to pay at least 20,000 KPW in cash.
UMG: It’s hard to believe that professors give higher grades in exchange for bribes and the students openly collect bribe money for the final exams.
Seol: Collective bribes at least involve a certain level of fairness because even if the average class grade gets higher, the gap in individual scores remains in accordance with the original scores. The bigger problem lies in individual bribes. Students who can afford to individually pay bribes to the university office without spending much time studying can get grades equal to the students who studied hard.
Unlike the subject ‘history of revolution,’ which only requires memorization for good grades, the major subjects, for instance economics, statistics, accounting, and finance, takes more than just memorization to get high scores. However, students can still get excellent scores for their final exam by paying bribes to the professors.
UMG: Education is the future of the county. It’s a pity that money is being prioritized over academic merit. People must be skeptical about university education.
Seol: That is true. One university student attending a university in North Pyongan Province said, “When I look at my classmates, it feels as if going to university is a nightmare. It takes at least 1000 USD per year to pay the registration fees and the bribes, and you have to pay 3000-4000 USD in total to graduate from the university.”
Because of this, students strongly prefer occupations that will enable them to pay back their tuition expenses, such as engineering or law-related jobs. Becoming a prosecutor is also very lucrative, as they receive a large number of bribes due to crackdowns on drugs and illegal videos. On the other hand, becoming a regular lawyer is not as popular, because they have relatively lower income.
UMG: It’s terrible that students must pay bribes to get good grades and then get a job in which they take bribes to pay back their tuition fees. The question is, how do the students prepare the bribe money?
Seol: They earn it through part-time jobs, mostly working as private tutors. The executives and donju (newly-affluent middle class) think it’s important that their children learn foreign languages in preparation for a possible future collapse of the country or the opening of North Korea. The university students see it as an opportunity to earn money.
In a typical scenario, a university student in North Pyongan Province would receive 60 USD per month by teaching English and Chinese to two high school students and a college student.
UMG: Do the authorities regulate private tutoring?
Seol: Not conspicuously. The university students are frequently mobilized for construction projects like building statues or apartments. In order to skip the afternoon work and go to their tutoring, they have to bribe the class president with at least a small gift, like a cigarette. It’s also common practice to employ a poor discharged soldier who is attending university to take their place in the workforce when a contract system is permitted for construction.
UMG: So university students are even mobilized for hard labor as well. How do they get through it all?
Seol: It is said that South Korean movies are a source of consolation for the students. They even watch the movies enthusiastically during the final exam period. Watching videos has become relatively easier because they can download the movies and TV series on bluetooth smartphones. For this reason, the universities have officially banned the use of mobile phones in public.
There is a Youth League Committee in North Korean universities, and if a committee member asks a student who was making a phone call within the university to, ‘Come and show your phone,’ they have to immediately comply. If there’s no Usim card in the phone, there’s little trouble, but every text message on the phone is examined.
If the text messages include South Korean expressions like, ‘There would be,’ or ‘It was like this,’ the students are dragged to the Committee and forced to write a self-criticism note and receive ideological education. They are only released after making a vow that they will never use South Korean expressions again. However, when a group of students are caught watching a South Korean TV series, the punishment is more serious.
A few months ago, four university students in North Pyongan Province were caught watching a South Korean TV series with a smartphone at school. They were not expelled because their parents were influential, but received the punishment of revolutionalization, which means that they have to spend a certain amount of time at construction sites or farms belonging to the university, and are suspended from classes.
UMG: It is regrettable that such systems exist within universities, where freedom of expression and active debate need to take place. Thank you for joining us.