Since the devastation wrought by the March of Tribulation in the late 1990s, education in North Korea has been firmly on the back burner.
When state food distribution ceased, teachers either could not go to school or simply handed in their resignations, while starving children simply stopped attending school. Therefore, even the basic operation of schools was extremely difficult.
One Seoul-based defector, who used to be in charge of military recruitment, explained the situation vividly, “More than half the candidates for military service came to take their physical examination wearing no underwear during the March.”
A Starving Student Rarely Attends School
Children whose parents had starved to death started appearing in large numbers, wandering the streets. People called them “kotjebi.”
Among those parents lucky enough not to starve, very few in the poorer classes bothered educating their children at all, saying, “Since you can’t move up due to your social status, you don’t need to go school. The only things you need are the reading and arithmetic that are needed in the jangmadang.” This has generated a vicious circle of poverty which continues to this day.
Meanwhile, most children in the middle social classes did not go to school either, but to the markets to do what business they could.
Declining attendances in schools wreaked havoc, of course. Since 2000 the North Korean authorities have been trying to bring schools back to life by harshly punishing parents whose children do not come to school.
Nevertheless, even elite children with politically and financially sound family backgrounds have given up on school. However, their reason is different; their parents are dissatisfied with the poor standard of education in public schools, so they have shifted into the private education field.
In reality, schools are equipped with ageing facilities, suffer a severe lack of materials and receive little state investment, so effective education is all but impossible.
For example, since 1985 there has been a chapter on computers in mathematics text books, and computer education has been nominally on the curriculum. However, IT education is purely theoretical, because there are no computers in any but the First Middle Schools.
A Starving Teacher is not a Good Teacher
A teacher who is not able to live on his or her wages alone will always have difficulties paying attention to teaching students, and either the teacher, or the students, or both, will seek alternative ways to achieve their goals.
From the late 1980s, informal private education started to appear in North Korea for the first time, in the form of music lessons. At the time, those who used to work for art units started teaching the accordion or violin to senior school students.
However, a decisive turning point in bringing about a boom in private education was the appearance of DVD players. Since around 2005, DVD players have become almost a necessity for senior school students.
Households use legal educational DVDs produced by Education and Culture Broadcasting, which is publicly aired only in Pyongyang, and illegally copied ones which feature recorded lectures by First Senior Middle School teachers. It is more effective than public school education, because they can see well-edited lectures by good teachers, rather than attending half-hearted ones by the disillusioned teachers in the general school system.
This home-schooling method has spread widely, even extending to elementary students.
In March this year, during the enrollment period for elementary school, an unprecedented “freshmen enrollment notice” containing a list of children required to start school was stuck up in public areas. This was due to rapidly declining freshman enrollment.
North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) released the story on March 17, quoting a North Korean source as saying, “Such a notice is the first in North Korean history.” Additionally, the source reported, “Affluent people can educate their children privately with the money which they would have to provide to public school every month plus a bit more. Therefore, they will not send their children to school. Private math or physics tutors can earn up to 30,000 North Korean won per month, and music or art tutors as much as 50,000 won.”