Tenfold increase in private education cost over last decade in North Korea

Students attending class in North Korea’s Pyongyang Elementary School. Image: Ryukyung Website

Private education is booming in North Korea, as demand grows for private tuition in arts subjects including music and dance.

Until the early 2000s, North Korea’s private education industry focused on core subjects like math, English and physics, as parents sought an edge for their students in their university entrance exams. After Kim Jong Un began emphasizing the importance of science and technology, an increase in demand was seen for private tuition in related subjects including computer science, foreign languages, physics and chemistry.

“In many North Korean cities, private education or so-called ‘private tutoring’ has been booming,” said a source in South Pyongan Province during a phone conversation with Daily NK. “There has been an increase in demand for music subjects, math and foreign language.”

“Accordion lessons cost 100 RMB per month, piano lessons are 200 RMB, guitar and violin lessons are 150 RMB, while artistic gymnastics, Korean ballet, dance, and vocal lessons cost about 100 RMB,” she said.

In North Korea’s markets, 1 US dollar can be exchanged for approximately 8000 KPW. A month of piano lessons currently costs around 240,000 KPW, which would be considered a hefty sum for many and the equivalent of 48 kg of rice in North Korea.

“Tutoring for math, physics and foreign language costs about 50 to 100 RMB (7.4~14.8 dollars) per month and piano lessons cost twice as much as that, showing that North Korean parents with money are keen to invest in their children’s education,” added a source in North Pyongan Province.

In general, the source continued, monthly fees for a tutor cost somewhere between 100~200 dollars, while monthly fees for a cram school (hagwon) costs 10 dollars per person, while inclusion in an all-day group class costs 15 dollars per student.   

Students at North Korea’s Pyongyang Elementary School take computer lessons. Image: Ryukyung

The private education industry began to spread as standards of living for teachers started plummeting in the 2000s. Economic hardships triggered the collapse of the public education system and teachers found they could no longer afford to rely on their government income and began offering their services as private tutors.

“After the widespread famine of the mid-1990s, North Koreans started to realize that particular skill sets can generate money, and the market for private education began to establish itself,” a separate source in South Pyongan Province explained.

Moreover, the emergence of disparities within the public education system that arose from the country’s economic woes is likely to have encouraged the spread of private education.

During the famine, North Korea became unable to keep all of its regular schools running, so the authorities focused on giving priority to the elite schools.

The desire for parents to send their children to elite schools arose from concerns that university placements were becoming limited and left at regular schools were likely to become laborers.

It appears that the cost of private tuition has risen by ten-fold over the past ten years.

According a 2009 investigation by Daily NK, the monthly tutorial fees for math, physics and Chinese cost 20,000-30,000 KPW at the time.

However, according to a 2018 investigation, despite some regional differences, the same lessons were priced from 20 dollars per hour or 100-200 dollars per month.

This shows that the market for private education has grown considerably over the last decade and the demand for private tutors continues to rise.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.