After lunch at the Jangsusan Hotel it was off to school, the Kim Jong Suk Middle High School, one of the classier schools in the county, for gifted children. Gifted children in North Korea will always be from families with higher ‘songbun’ or status within the country – academic ability on its own being insufficient to meet the criteria.
As soon was we arrived at the school I noticed that the children here, 11 – 16 year olds, seemed somewhat more inquisitive than those at other schools we had visited.
I suspect the reason for this inquisitiveness was that, even though the school is only 30 kilometres from Pyongyang, they actually don’t get that many visitors given the number of school visit options for tourists in the capital and the fact that most groups en route to Mt Myonyang, as we were, pass by Pyongsong without stopping.
The headmistress of the school was our guide for our short stop here, during which we would observe an English class in action, before joining in. But before that the headmistress gave us a brief history of the school and told us of the classes available and how its primary focus was on the hard sciences and preparing students for one of the many territory scientific institutions based in Pyongsong, after which students would go on the become scientists of various kinds, naturally including nuclear physicists and the like.
Scientists are a highly sought after, and respected, breed in North Korea – contrary to many parts of the western world which are increasingly holding them, and any form of evidence based research, in contempt and disregard.
Those familiar with the importance placed on education in socialist countries will not be surprised to hear that North Korea is one of the most literate countries in the world with a literacy rate, according to UNESCO, of 98-100 percent.
The ‘quality’ of that education and its delivery methodology, measured by ‘advanced’ western standards, is criticised by many to the extent that various United Nations’ reports have concluded that the education system (among a long list of other things!) violates international law by restricting freedom of thought and expression in the country’s people. Naturally, North Korea has rejected these UN findings.
There is no doubt that the literature read by students in North Korea is highly censored and the education system focuses heavily on the Kims and on upholding socialistic conformity. One of the stated aims of the system is for ‘students to acquire the concept of revolution and endless loyalty toward the party and the supreme leader.’ Hundreds of hours (estimated at around 10% of total class hours) across a child’s education – starting in kindergarten – are devoted to learning about the Leadership and the Juche philosophy of self-reliance, introduced by Kim Il-sung in the 1950s. Every classroom in the country is adorned with pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, typically above the blackboard or teacher’s desk while the corridors are liberally adorned with revolutionary posters peppered with anti-Japanese and anti-American rhetoric, pictures and paintings of the Kims, and the playgrounds (primary schools and kindergartens) are equipped with children’s rides in the form of tanks, rockets and missiles.
In terms of history, the school is one of a number of special high schools established, one in each province, by Kim Il-sung in the mid 1980s. It was named after Kim Jong-suk, wife of Kim Il-sung and mother to Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-suk, while lesser known outside North Korea is highly revered within the country, particularly in the northern part where she was born, in Heoryong, on the Chinese border. Mother Kim Jong-suk, one of the ‘three Commanders of Mt Paektu’, was a leading guerrilla fighter and bodyguard to Kim il-sung during his fight to liberate the Korean Peninsula from Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century. Some outside observers suggest that she was little more than a kitchen hand, in Kim Il-sung’s camp, who got elevated to a godlike status following her marriage to the Great Leader. I have included a much more detailed account of Kim Jong-suk in a separate post so rather than repeat that here I refer you to – ‘Mother Kim Jong-suk – From Kitchen Hand to Commander of Mt Paektu’.
Our short tour of the school focused on an English class for senior students. Here we observed as a number of the students formally introduced themselves, telling us a little about their hobbies, interests and aspirations.
While their hobbies and interests broadly aligned with kids everywhere their aspirations were, without exception, focused on serving their country and Kim Jong-un, before considering family or personal wants and desires. This ordering of priorities aligns with the whole ethos of the country and is based on the supposition that if they put their country and leadership first the leadership will look after them and provide for all their material needs like security (an important one), food, accommodation, healthcare, education and so on.
After we had heard from a few of the students, members of our group were invited to address the class, covering the same topics as touched on by the students. A few of the group did this and, for a closed country, I was surprised how the students were able to comment on (in excellent English), and relate to, topics which many would consider alien to their day to day lives.
After this the students (in pairs) mixed with our group for a general chit chat, focusing on families, jobs, music and sport. Unsurprisingly, I found their knowledge of overseas sports (especially soccer/football) to be reasonably high and their knowledge of foreign music to be rather poor. While North Koreans have access to limited external sports’ telecasts, legal access to foreign music is severely restricted.
Sadly, we missed out on seeing the school’s museum which I have subsequently found out contains a rather interesting (read bizarre) collection of stuffed animals, used in teaching students about the fauna of their country. Below are some pictures I have taken from another blog – Bjorn Free.
I can but wonder if the taxidermy work was carried out by students or other in-country experts. In either case, I am glad they had the good sense to engage Soviet/ Russian specialists when it came to embalming the bodies of the Great and Dear Leaders!
Just as at top schools anywhere in the world, children at North Korea’s elite schools can be a little naughty. I recall learning of how students at my own school (Portora Royal School – a grammar school in Northern Ireland), albeit back in 1859, decided to put into practice what they had learned in chemistry class and with some home-made gunpowder blew up part of the adjacent Portora Castle, by then thankfully derelict.
In North Korea, at another of these Middle High Schools, the Kim Ki-song Hoeryong First Middle School, in Hoeryong (named after Kim Jong-suk’s younger brother) investigators recently found that one in six students (they were publicly named and shamed) at the school had consumed crystal methamphetamine and many had engaged in drug induced sex. At the Kim Jong-suk school, though it is alleged (by some external observers) that Pyongsong is an important centre for the production of crystal methamphetamine and other illicit drugs for the export market, the misdemeanour most recently attributed to students was not related to drugs but rather to the storage of (unspecified) illegal materials on their mobile phones. Presumably this relates to foreign movies, South Korean soap operas (always popular), other videos (probably including pornography) and/or foreign unapproved reading material. In regards to the latter, a number of Pyongsong higher education lecturers were also caught using unauthorised texts in their classes. To date, while some students from the school have had their mobile phones confiscated, they have not been otherwise punished or publicly shamed as happened to their counterparts in Hoeryong.
In finishing, I should point out that despite the existence of a number of well funded and well run schools like this one (and the others visited by foreigners) the general education system in North Korea, while functioning at a basic level, has been in dire straits since the 1990s (famine) and most schools still lack adequate heating, food rations and basic classroom supplies.
My next North Korea – Pyongsong 2018 review HERE (coming soon)
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongsong reviews – HERE