SEOUL (AFP) – One of the first things North Korean defector Ri Kwang-myong did after reaching the South was to go back to school – 12 years after finishing his education.
North Korea claims a 100 per cent literacy rate and boasts that its free compulsory education demonstrates the superiority of its socialist system.
But those who escape from the impoverished country often struggle in the South from a lack of basic knowledge.
Lessons at North Korean schools are peppered with praise for the leadership, defectors say, and for many, education is also disrupted by grinding poverty or their long journey to freedom.
Ri, 31, is among a handful of adult students at Wooridul School in Seoul, an educational haven for North Korean students too old, or lagging academically and so unable to go to appropriate state schools.
“Although I studied in the North and graduated, I don’t know much,” said Ri, who went back to school last year, six months after arriving in South Korea.
Much of what he was taught in the North was not applicable in his new home, he added, “Everything I learned is different.”
One of the most important subjects in the North Korean education curriculum is revolutionary studies, which focusses on the ruling Kim family.
It starts with two hours a week at the age of six – when pupils are taught the official versions of the childhoods of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, grandfather and father of the current leader Kim Jong-un.
Soon afterwards Kim Jong-Il’s mother Kim Jong-suk joins the pantheon, and in secondary school six classes a week are devoted to the subject – a significant percentage of the total teaching.
When AFP visited Manbok high school in Sonbong, North Korea, Principal Ri Myong-guk said, “Our students grow up in the love and care of the party and the state. We believe it’s important to educate the students with political and revolutionary history so they appreciate the love and care of the great leaders,” he explained.
The South Korean government describes the North’s education system as designed to instil “unconditional loyalty to the party and the leader as the most important aspect of life”.
And Lee Mi-yeon, a former kindergarten teacher in the North who fled in 2010, added, “They are taught as mythical figures who created the country and made grenades out of pine cones.”