Private tutoring is catching on in North Korea

The students walking on the Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyan in Aug. 2012 (Chintung Lee, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

The American philosopher, psychologist and educator John Dewey, who advocated functional psychology and had a significant influence on the American school system, famously said that “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.”

I was exposed to this idea in a documentary I watched after failing a university entrance exam. That was three years after my defection to South Korea. I liked the way Dewey placed learning on the continuum of life. 

I was open to the idea because my desire to get into a particular university had been thwarted. I’d set my sights on that place and prepared for two and a half years. But now I thought, “I can’t get in, but I will study for the rest of my life and become an intellectual in this field, just like people who actually got accepted at the school.”

I’m embarrassed now about my naivete. I was obsessed with education because I believed success in South Korea depended on getting into a good school.

In those two and a half years, I needed extra tuition in many subjects. I wanted to go to a cram school for the suneung SAT, but I couldn’t afford it. My parents were not with me and my settlement allowance of USD 300 a month was not enough to live on, let alone cover extras. 

South Korea is the mecca of private education. People spend huge amounts. In fact, figures released in 2023 show they spent more of their income on this than any other people. According to one Chinese research institute, it costs 7.79 times per capita GDP to raise a child in South Korea until the age of 18. China is second at 6.9 times per capita GDP. Italy at 6.28 times and the United Kingdom at 5.25 times rank third and fourth, followed by New Zealand (4.55), Canada (4.34), Japan (4.26), the United States (4.11) and Australia (2.08 times). 

With the exception of China, the countries where people spend the most of their income on education are market economies.

How about North Korea? It is a socialist country that advocates free public education. But in recent years, private education has emerged. 

According to a 2023 survey of defectors by the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the most popular subjects for extra tuition are mathematics (47.7%), art (33.8%) and English (27.7%). Interestingly, defectors who arrived between 2016 and 2020 are more likely to have paid a professional tutor for it (49.7%) than received free help from a teacher (43.5%). With teachers struggling to survive on their low salaries, many are offering private lessons.

My first lessons were in the accordion. Also I was taught Japanese by a former director of the elite Red Flag Mangyongdae Revolutionary School. This man, who had been banished to our rural district for adultery, was very persuasive. He insisted that learning Japanese would be an advantage. Although I wonder how useful the first sentence I learned would have been in Tokyo: “Thank you, Great Leader Kim Jong-il, the head of state.” Four of my friends were also convinced by his eloquence and signed up for lessons.

According to defectors from the last decade or so, the most popular language is Chinese. Indeed, some say private Chinese lessons were their “preparation for defection.” For example, one lady from Hoeryong paid for Chinese tutoring with money from her mother, who was in South Korea and who said lessons would come in handy passing through China. She spent USD 30 a month for four months. Her teachers were a woman who had lived in China and had been repatriated and a Chinese man who went in and out of North Korea on business.

A man from Rason said that in 2004-2005 he was tutored in mathematics, physics and Chinese and paid 30 yuan a month for each subject. 

A third defector took extra math lessons on the advice of his mother, who was already in South Korea. He then spent two years in China, receiving private tutoring in preparation for the South Korean suneung SAT. “She thought it would be cheaper to prepare for the exam in China,” he said. He went on to study at Seoul National University. 

Another defector said, “In North Korea, you have to be good at science, such as math and physics, to be considered a good student. My mother, who defected, told me that I should be good at English in South Korea, so I took private English tutoring.”

Yet another defector worked as a private tutor to elite kids in Pyongyang. She was paid in dollars for piano lessons.

Although it is those with money and status who are benefiting from private education, we should not assume this trend signals significant change. 

“You can’t attend university in North Korea if you don’t have money,” said a friend who had a hard time getting into university and gave up. “They feed you in the school dormitory, but you just get two or three pieces of radish floating in soup. How can you study after eating that? In the end, whether in the North or South, you need money or strong support from parents to study. Private tutoring is a luxury.”

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