China and the DPRK: Day 7 – Doksong Primary School, Pyongsong.


Today was the day that we were heading out of Pyongyang to see a school and to get out into the country. We’d seen the Planetarium and the Candy Festival and now it was time to head out of town to a smaller city about 35kms away. To get us in the mood Un Ha got up at the front of the bus and told us about the North Korean school system as we drove.

At the end of WWII, when the Japanese pulled out of Korea, North Korea had around 2.5 million illiterate people. Not surprisingly, there was a huge push for education. In 1946 the first University was built and in 1953 compulsory primary schooling was introduced.

Nowadays there are 12 years of compulsory education: 6 years primary; 3 years junior secondary, 3 years senior secondary. Just like us! Schools start at 8:30am with 45 minute periods. After school activities are very important, as families only have 1 or 2 children, so they make their kids study more after school.

‘School Children’s Palaces’ run from 3pm – 6pm and they have classes for kids from 5 – 17 years old. (We visited one later on in the week.) They run classes in music, performing, sport and sciences. This is, of course, convenient babysitting for working parents.

After secondary school, there’s the military, a job or Uni. Unlike South Kora, military service isn’t compulsory, but it’s heavily encouraged. Students who show a facility for languages, for example, are encouraged to become tour guides like our Mr Pak and Un Ha.

If you want to go to Uni you have to pass an exam. Some people study for 2 years to get in, according to Un Ha. Classes start at 8am and there are three 90-minute lectures in the morning, with sport or afternoon study in the afternoon.

There are some secondary schools which are selective. The best and brightest of the kids are scooped up to be taught there, with an eye for them going into the satellite and nuclear industries later on.

Evening classes are offered in every factory and workplace and people are ‘highly encouraged’ to participate. The classes run from 6 – 8PM and run for 4 1/2 years, so you work all day and then study to earn a Bachelors and ‘Expert’ degree. Often these are computer/science classes, but they are also courses specifically about the teachings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, particularly about the Juche philosophy.

Once you’ve finished that, then there are correspondence courses to enable you to stay current. You study in a class for a month, then you study by yourself via computer for 22 months and then you sit an exam at the end. These remote classes are very popular in farms and factories. The exams are different for each and every student, so there’s no possibility of anyone cheating.

I wrote all this down as the bus was bumping along. My handwriting is really hard to decipher at times! Anyway, that’s how the Korean government has revolutionised education. It’s interesting when you think back to the hugely illiterate population that had only 70 years ago.

As soon as we came into the foyer of the primary school, there was the obligatory picture of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with smiling and happy children. You can see that someone has left a floral offering underneath it.

The first place we were taken to see was the “Nature Room” that the teachers had built themselves. No doubt due to the sanctions, they didn’t have access to teaching materials that we simply take for granted back home. There were weird things in glass bottles, a diorama of Korea and a mountain that they’d decorated with massively out-of-proportion animals and birds. The principal was so proud of this room, which she said was “built with the hard-work and stern principles of the Juche philosophy of self-reliance.”

This was down one of the side corridors. Again, like the public library we’d seen a day or two before, there seemed to be a conscious frugality in how they used electricity.

This was the first classroom we entered. The computer science room. They were very keen to show us their students working on individual computers, but I was the first one into the room and as I walked to the end I noticed their I.T guy…

I couldn’t believe it. He was trying to get the big screen on the wall to work by using a car battery and some form of transformer. (That was what our I.T guys said when I got back and showed them.) 

I couldn’t help but compare this with the technology we use at home, with interactive whiteboards in every room, every child having a Chromebook supplied to them and if there’s even a 10-minute disruption of the internet, we all carry on as if our throats are cut. All our roll-marking, reporting and communications are done online, so to see something like this was mind-blowing.

One of the kids touch-typing.

See the poster hanging on the wall behind the student? The school had plenty of pictures for the kids to see.

As we were moving up to the third floor, this was on the landing facing the stairs. Keep in mind, this is at a primary school…

When people ask me what going to North Korea was like, I laugh and tell them that it was fantastic. I had the BEST time and it was so interesting. However, just when I’d relax and think that I was in a country pretty much like everywhere else, I’d see or hear something that rocked me back on my heels and I’d think, “OMG! This is a WEIRD place.” Seeing that poster in the school was definitely one of those moments. I took a sneaky shot as we moved past it, because I didn’t want to offend the principal.

This was the only propaganda poster I saw at the school, but Walter from Hungary was extremely good at slipping away when people were busy and he took photos of a few more. They were tucked away in some of the dark corridors where we weren’t likely to go. While we were looking at cute kiddies doing cute things, he was quietly having a walk and seeing posters like these:

Molotov cocktails and tanks…

Bodies and decapitated heads…

Graphic battle scenes…

The date… 25th June 1950 was the start of the Korean War.

I don’t think I can caption this with anything that would add to it. This is in front of primary school kids every day. They might not stand and gaze at these pictures, but they’d certainly seep into their consciousnesses over time.

Notice the exaggerated nose on the attacker? They are taught to call Americans “the long-nosed aggressors” because that’s how they appeared to them in the war.

I was glad that Wally walked around and took these because I wouldn’t otherwise have seen them. However, it’s a double-edged sword. By slipping away all the time, he was putting the guides’ jobs at risk. Mr Pak and Un Ha were doing a brilliant job of looking after us and it would be awful if, because of someone’s curiosity, they ended up losing their jobs. Wally was agreeable and, when discovered, he never argued or created a scene, so I guess he’d be an easy ‘difficult’ tourist, if you know what I mean. But you can imagine how many headaches a really self-entitled person could cause the guides.

Anyway, I digress. Here’s what the rest of us were seeing:

Up on the third floor was a sunny studio where we saw a ‘gymnastics’ class, though just between you and me it was really a dance class. These sweet little girls were practically bursting out of their leotards, they were trying so hard to impress.

They were leaping and pirouetting and smiling ear to ear all the time.

Here’s the rest of the class while the soloist was doing her stuff.

Now that I know what Wally was doing, I notice that I can’t seem to see him in the audience reflected in the mirror. Maybe that’s him – the shadowy figure in the doorway, about to slip away and go and take photos…?

Ahhh… working with bouncy balls. It’s very impressive when it all goes well, but gee my heart bled for the little girl who missed the catch and had to go chasing after hers. Poor kid; they were all trying so hard.

Next door was the music class. Again, it was obvious the kids were waiting for us to turn up. Their singing voices are very different to how we teach. The DPRK kids sing in a high-pitched, almost forced tone that is fairly shrill, whereas we in the West go for a more full-throated sound.

The piano accordion is a big thing in the DPRK. Between this teacher and a little boy on the drums, the girls had a stirring, almost Big Band soundtrack to sing to.

This little boy was having a great time banging away on the drums. After a couple of songs he got down from there and sang a solo. It was all very march-y and he’d do these very militaristic hand signals as he was singing. As I whispered to James, I wasn’t sure if it was just a normal song or if he was threatening to take over our countries and oppress us.

Then Matt, our guide, jumped onto the drums and we all sang ‘Let’s go to Mt Pektu‘. (I’ve posted the link for you before, but it’s worthwhile having a look at if you haven’t seen it. The videos playing behind the band, especially after the 2:20 mark are amazing. Plus the shots of the audience are… um… inspiring, to say the least.)

They were just so gol’durned wholesome. They were singing their little hearts out and doing their little hand gestures and inclining their heads just so and smiling. They were as cute as buttons.

Next stop was the table tennis gym. Those kids were going hell for leather.

I took lots of photos of these two kids. The one on the right had the most expressive face!

Some of the guys on our tour stepped up and played with the kids. I loved the look on this girl’s face as she was watching.

As we were leaving, the kids were dismissed for lunch.

Oliver from Germany had brought small toys, pencils and textas to give away. The kids swarmed around him.

These little girls were walking past Matt and he suddenly pretended to be a bear and ran up to them, growling. The delighted screams and giggles as they ran away, then came back, hoping he’d do it again,(he did), was very funny. One little girl looked a little unsure the first time, but I caught her eye and laughed and she relaxed.

I wish I’d stepped to the left. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t deliberately hiding behind the pole!

After looking for the earlier video, I found this PEARLER of a song. North Korean songs are never about romance and heartbreak. They’re all about love for the country and about striving for victory etc. This one is all about STUDY! It has English subtitles. Watch and enjoy. You can thank me later.

And while we’re talking about schools, here are some Maths problems included in a book written by someone who escaped North Korea. The book is called “This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood” by Hyok Kang. When I got back from my trip, Phil, another teacher, lent me a few books he had about the DPRK. These Maths problems are meant for primary school kids and were published in the 1990’s. I have no idea if the same things are still being taught now:

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