[Viewpoint]A call for education exchangesIf they weren’t election campaign posters, what were they? No.1, Park Jin-hu; No. 2, Choi Ryong-jin; No. 3, Jeon Su-il ... No. 97, Wu Hyeong-seung; No. 98, Kim Yun-hyeok. It was a list of 98 fifth-grade students in an intermediate computer class, ranked by their grades. Posted on a large board in the school corridor were the photos, names and grades of some 300 students, from fourth to sixth grade, at the school.
The school is Geumseong Hagwon in Pyongyang, which this writer visited in late May. It is a school for computer prodigies in North Korea. A male student said, “You can’t help but study really hard because the school informs your parents of your grades and publicly discloses them.” Park Ryong-gil, a teacher, explained that such special schools for gifted children exist not only in Pyongyang and in the capital of each province but also in most other cities and local districts.
Walking down the school corridors, I came across a slogan: “It is up to the teachers, those who are directly in charge of education, to rear qualified students of ability.” Under this was the name of Kim Jong-il.
As a journalist specializing in education, that was my first time visiting a North Korean school and the shock was quite big. Chills ran down my spine witnessing their ideology lessons and severe “elite” training, the harsh evaluation system that the teachers have to endure as well as the children who have to use crude yellow cardboard for notebooks.
The reason I took out my notepad and wrote down my impressions is because I could not help feeling that our government is too indifferent to educational exchanges between South and North Korea. Until now, the two Koreas have shied away from any educational exchange because of their different ideologies and educational systems. Thus, South Koreans are less familiar with and less interested in North Korea’s educational system than with its economy, culture or sports.
Even I did not know that there were schools for specially gifted students in North Korea and that the educational system consisted of four years of primary school, six years of high school and four years of university.
It might be fortunate for our educational circles that the summit meeting between South and North Korea has been postponed to October because of the flooding disaster in North Korea. If the summit were to take place on Aug. 28 in Pyongyang as originally intended, there would have been no opportunity to talk about the issue of education.
Now that we have more time to prepare for the summit, the Ministry of Education must come forward. It should suggest a program to initiate an exchange with North Korea, and listen to public opinion on this matter.
Nothing could be as important as education in preparing for the era of unification and for recovering the unity between South and North Koreans.
There has hardly been any education exchange with the North until now. The level of exchange has been minimal, limited to us sending books, computers and other educational tools to North Korea. The Pyongyang Science and Technology University, first conceived 10 years ago as a private joint project between South and North Korea, has gone through much hardship and is hoping to start classes next April. “Educational exchange [between South and North Korea] is the future force to elevate the level of the Korean people. While it might be difficult and take a long time, we must not give up,” said Park Chan-mo, president of Postech and co-founder of Pyongyang Science and Technology University. He added that we should start the exchange in the high disciplines such as science, language and history and we should encourage exchanges of educators and students. Park has visited Pyongyang nine times.
In his congratulatory message on Liberation Day, President Roh Moo-hyun said that he will not ask for too much in the summit meeting with Kim Jong-il and that he would instead strive for gradual but substantial progress.
The summit meeting may have been postponed but I believe the president’s vow is still good.
As part of this progress, how about making education an area for exchanges and offer it to North Korea as an issue on which we could work together?
*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Young-yu