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What It Looks Like Inside A Classroom In North Korea

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 24, 2018 6:28 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we're going to take you next to a place few Americans have ever seen - the inside of a classroom in North Korea.

We just pulled up to Pyongyang Teacher Training College. It has the ubiquitous portraits of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, on the front. This is a squat, four-story, green and white cinderblock and glass building.

It's a school day, a weekday morning when we visit. Our government minders have arranged this tour. They were at our side for our entire reporting trip. Here at Pyongyang Teacher Training College, about 1,500 students are enrolled, ages roughly 17 to 23. They'll go on to teach at schools in the capital. North Korea may be cut off from the world, may be struggling under sanctions, but this campus - it is bright, it is clean, a modern gym and soccer field out front. And our visit drove home two points to me. The first - how intensely focused North Korea is on promoting itself as a leader in science and technology.

SHIN YUN SI: (Speaking Korean).

KELLY: Here's Shin Yun Si, who helps run the college's artificial intelligence program.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Because she's explaining the very up-to-date technologies, please excuse. I'm not an expert. But she mentioned about the virtual reality technology and then hologram. I don't know what that means, but that is hologram technology and environmental designing technology and 3D dimensional - I mean, environmental designing technology. I'm not sure it's correct, but she's explaining.

KELLY: That government interpreter may not know what a hologram is, but he knows they've got one, along with classroom after classroom where at least the day we visited instructors were handing out virtual reality goggles...

I've just picked a pair up. It looks like they're looking at planets orbiting the sun.

...Or interacting with virtual students on a screen...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where are you from?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I'm from Pyongyang. I'm from Pyongyang.

KELLY: ...Or eager to show us all the laptops in use.

So we just walked into the third or fourth classroom down this hall. There's 18 students in here, all women, same as in every classroom. And we're told they're pioneering a new method of teaching when you do several things at once. So we're watching some draw with pencils landscapes. Some are painting calligraphy with paint brushes, Korean characters. There's a piano going obviously. And then some are working on laptops. I can see an HP laptop that says it's running Windows 7.

So all the conspicuous technology - that is one takeaway. The second big impression for me was the curriculum's emphasis on respect for the regime and for the authority of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Take the classroom where they're learning how to teach toddlers - all the dolls and puzzles and toy trains you might expect. Painted on the wall - a cute bunny rabbit playing in the snow but dressed, as our North Korean guides point out, for summer.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So there's a - you can see the wall - there's - it's snowing, but the rabbit is wearing a very short shirt.

KELLY: Short-sleeved shirt, a summer shirt.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: And through the decoration that even though it is very cold outside - but the love for the children of the supreme leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, is very warm.

KELLY: So the little bunny rabbit can wear a summer T-shirt even when it's snowing...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah, right.

KELLY: ...Because of the love...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Of Kim Jong Un.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah. The rabbit represents the children. Even though it's cold - but we can sleep well because we have the warm care and love of the supreme leader, comrade Kim Jong Un.

KELLY: One more image to leave you with. On the shelf in that classroom next to the warm bunny rabbit sits a white Styrofoam model of an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. The North Korean flag is painted across it, and suspended around it - circling, tiny, white Styrofoam doves.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

KELLY: We had so many questions about what we saw at Pyongyang Teacher Training College, questions that were tough to answer while we were there. We were not permitted, for example, to interview a single student. So we've brought in Jean Lee. She is director of the Korea Program at the Wilson Center. Before that, she worked as a reporter, five years as Korea bureau chief for The Associated Press. She opened the AP's bureau in Pyongyang. And I asked her about what we just heard.

That piece of tape we heard in my report from Pyongyang where they were at pains to show us how high-tech everything was at this teacher training college - and on the other hand, the government guide translating wasn't sure what a hologram is. I mean, it made me wonder. Were we being shown what they wanted us to see, what they think Westerners expect a college or university should look like?

JEAN LEE: I did chuckle at that as well. I thought the translator was very deft in explaining it even though - and admitting that he didn't know (laughter) what a hologram was. But I had the same thought as you, was that this is not filtering down to even somebody like your translator, your interpreter. I mean, these trips are meant to be - to promote their propaganda.

KELLY: These trips where they bring media in and drive us around and show us what they want us to see, you mean.

LEE: Yes.

KELLY: Yeah.

LEE: And it's not I would say ordinary, but it certainly reflects the policies and priorities of Kim Jong Un's government and his leadership. Now, I do find that the North Koreans - it was surprising to me when I first started going there how obsessed they are with technology. And honestly, if you know South Koreans, you know they're obsessed with technology as well. So I think this is - (laughter) I consider this something very Korean. But it fits in with Kim Jong Un's own image as somebody who's promoting technology as a way to move forward.

KELLY: You're hitting...

LEE: And so I'm not surprised.

KELLY: You're hitting right at this disconnect that I wrestled with the whole time on the ground in North Korea, which is we saw laptops. They were at pains to stress how high-tech everything was. We know that North Korea turns out some of the most sophisticated hackers in the world. On the other hand, most North Koreans can't get on the worldwide web. There's no international cellphone service. They are cut off in almost every way from the information age. How should we reconcile that?

LEE: There are a couple of things here. First, I would like to point out that the North Koreans do have a strong sense of pride. They recognize that the rest of the world around them - I'm talking about China, particularly South Korea and Japan - are incredibly high-tech countries. They have a strong sense of pride, and they want to show us, look; we are just as sophisticated as the rest of you.

Now, I should mention that the other thing that might be hard for us to reconcile is that this is a communist country, but what we're seeing is a huge discrepancy between the haves and have-nots because if you were to leave the capital, there is almost no infrastructure. So to imagine this beautiful computer lab outside of Pyongyang would be very difficult, for example, because the rest of the country's so underdeveloped. And they do not have - basics - electricity, running, water, flushing toilets. And so I don't think we should look at this as how life is for every North Korean. This is a very select group of people who are able to take advantage of these resources.

KELLY: Jean Lee - she was a foreign correspondent in Pyongyang and in Seoul for the Associated Press. She's now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Jean Lee, thank you.

LEE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAN FERMIN SONG, "BRIDE")

KELLY: And we've got lots more of our reporting from North Korea to come. Tomorrow we're going to take you inside a cosmetics factory in Pyongyang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAN FERMIN SONG, "BRIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.