Thursday, August 19, 2010

North Korea - educational holocaust

I was one protagonist in a ‘knives out’ debate at Online Educa against Aric Sigman, on whether technology harms the mind or not. What surprised me the most about Aric’s opening slide of some smiling North Korean children, was the fact that he praised the North Korean system of education for its structured approach to learning, free from the interference of technology. Oh yeah?

Nothing To Envy

Well, this year has seen the publication of ‘Nothing To Envy’ by Barbara Demick, which just happens to feature, as its main subject, a defected teacher from North Korea. It’s a harrowing but worthwhile read, showing that education is not always an intrinsic good. In countries where religious fanatics or dictators who promote religious adulation, set the educational agenda, education is the tool by which people are enslaved in mind and body. Kim Il-sung modelled himself on Stalin and the Japanese Emperor, instilling a crude form of Confuscian Communism that saw him as God and his son as the son of God.

There is a legal obligation to have a portrait of the great leader in your home, and even a law that it must be regularly cleaned, enforced by spot-checks. Indoctrination also takes place in collective farms and factories, with regular indoctrination sessions. All enforced by a network of ‘snitches’. But it is in the schools that the real mind-games are executed, with chilling efficiency.

North Korean schools

Above the blackboard, all classroom s have double portraits of the Great Leader and his son. Each school has a separate room, a shrine to the Great Leader, where children must take off their shoes to enter and speak in hushed tones. This religious devotion has been extended to his son, who demanded that another room to be built, as his shrine.

Books are rare photocopied things , barely legible and often copied by hand (by parents) if the children needed to study at home, even paper is incredibly scarce. The title of the book comes from a song that all Korean children know by heart ‘We Have Nothing to Envy in the World’. This is only true by virtue of them knowing little or nothing about the rest of the world. The country and its beliefs are a closed system, with no internet.


Kim Il-sung’s Theses on Socialist Education is the guiding manifesto, with political and ideological education at its core. Children learn by repeating key passages and phrases by heart. All other subjects are taught through propaganda related to the Great Leader. For example, in maths, “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many are singing in total?” Or the even more absurd, “Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers? One song, taught to primary school kids is called “Shoot the Yankee Bastards!


Mi-ran, the main subject of the book, trained to be a teacher but even her training was a story of horrific suffering, with students living in accommodation with no heating and little food. A curious aspect of teacher training was the compulsory need to learn the accordion, regarded by the authorities as a portable and suitably stirring instrument for collective celebration. Malnutrition was rife. In the end she defected after not being paid and seeing the terrible suffering of the children she taught, and this is all recent.


The real tragedy, as told by this teacher, was the malnourishment, starvation and deaths among the children. Over just three years enrolment in her class dropped from 50 to 15, through famine. She saw them get listless, bring no lunch because they had no food, their stomachs extend, then disappear, never to return. The system, propagated through propaganda-driven education was killing the nation and its children.

For Aric, it’s just another PowerPoint slide, for the people of North Korea it’s an engineered, educational holocaust.

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Blogger Scott said...

wow... amazing story. and to think, it's all because so yutz decides he's God and everyone else needs to be below him. Thanks for the writeup.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Paul Angileri said...

Your antagonist appears to be a pretty, um, sheltered person. I assume he did not mean his example in jest, although if he did it would have been quite a bit of dark humor to open up with. If the measure of a good education is simple administration of harsh discipline and adherence every hour of the day, every day of one's life, who needs textbooks?

I certainly wouldn't term what happens with North Korean school children "education", beyond the simple equation comprised of children in a room led by someone with the title of "teacher". What happens in NK is far more appropriately called what it is: indoctrination. Everyone exists to be a tool of that mad man. Even bad education is better than what happens within those borders.

The faults that education today has are certainly obvious, but they're nothing compared to the swamp of the past, with corporal punishment; exclusive emphasis on rote memorization; ideological indoctrination; etc. A lot of these horrible practices go all the way back to the Romans, and likely even further than that.

5:55 AM  

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