A Blogger in Pyongyang (Part 2)

July 15th, 2011

In part two of the blogger in Pyongyang mini-series, we present more of Ashen’s university experience.   Having already described his student accommodation in part one, another post reveals greater details about the academic side to Ashen’s life in Pyongyang as a foreign student.

Ashen explains:

“The total duration of study is five years, the first of which is introductory. During the introductory year students study language at the beginner level. The introductory studies are held at the Gimhyeongjik College of Education (김형직사범대학). The college has a dormitory for foreign students. It also has older students who also live in the dorm and help the foreign students with language studies. The accommodations are comprised of two separate rooms with one common bathroom, and the situation with water and electricity supply is not so bad.

The introductory year is followed by four years of studies at Kim Il Sung University. The first semester starts on April 1st and ends in the middle of July. This is followed by a one month summer break. After the break the study resumes for 2-3 weeks before the start of exams. Exams take place over a course of three weeks; students choose their own exam schedule and submit it to the dean for approval. Exams are immediately followed by the second semester and it usually lasts till the middle of December, or sometimes until the beginning of January. This is because of the Chinese New Year celebration and the fact that the majority of the students are Chinese, which the university has to take into account. Studies continue for a bit longer right after the New Year and are followed by exams. Then next school year then starts on April 1st.

The curriculum of the first year is comprised of simple courses: reading, oral and English language. The second semester introduces the first theoretical course “Introduction to Linguistics”. The second year includes history, phonetics and literature foundations; the third year is comprised of the history of the Korean language, phonetics, grammar, syntax , logic and Juche philosophy. The fourth year of study adds various dialects of the Korean language and computer programming. There are no classes during the second semester of the final year; this is when the students begin to write their graduation thesis. During the months December-January students take exams and submit their graduation thesis, get their diplomas in the middle of January and happily return home. Additionally there are accelerated studies (nine months for Chinese students and 1-3 months for Russian students). Russian students usually come from Moscow (MGIMO) or Vladivostok (DVGU).”

Studies take place from Monday to Saturday, although Saturday is only a half day.  There are no studies on DPRK holidays, or on Chinese ones either.   In the evenings, Ashen says that students complete homework, eat dinner and then watch Korean movies in their free time (although no mention of whether these are North or South Korean).  On weekends, students often drink beer and soju together.  He adds that every two months, school authorities take the foreign students on tours of revolutionary sites, museums and other attractions.

With regards to academic rules, Ashen says that in case of failure of two exams or more, students must retake.   But if a student then fails their retakes, they can theoretically expect to be expelled from the course (although this never happened to anyone he knows).  For foreign students like him, poor attendance is punishable (theoretically) by being refused entry into examinations. However, Ashen says this rule is never really applied.  But in comparison, Korean students away from school for three days or more (without a good excuse) can expect to get into a lot of trouble.

It is in the comments section of this post that Ashen reveals why he chose to study at Kim Il-Sung University.  When a reader asks, he responds by saying that  “as I originally lived in North Korea, I wanted to study there”.  So it would seem Ashen has been living in the DPRK for a considerable amount of time, all the more likely given indications his parents seem to be posted there at the Russian embassy.

As a foreign student in Pyongyang, Ashen later explains in another post that he is obliged to carry a special permit, which confirms his long-term visitor status.  And the purpose of this document, he explains, is to prove that he is not a run-away tourist!

“Inside is a label that explains that I am a foreign student at Kim Il Sung University,  including the address of my residence (dormitory) .  It is stamped with the date of issuance and must be renewed once a year.   For me, it is in fact a useless thing. My face is well known.  For two years it proved useful to me only a couple of times…And another thing – while in North Korea I do not have an active visa. My visa is in fact issued to me on exit and entry – for example when I go on vacation. If say I want to visit China, I have to get two visas: one Chinese and one Korean.”

In part three, we will look at Ashen’s collection of North Korean cigarettes, his experiences riding the metro, and his visit to an ostrich farm.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.

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  • Kennyv777

    I do not think it is fair to say that being able to walk around unhindered in Pyongyang really gives one insight into the average North Korean life. Pyongyang is the after all the most industrious city in North Korea, with several buildings being there for just the appearance. Only a small portion of the population lives the, the rest being in far less industrious areas. The Kim regime is surely not going to allow the one city that attracts the most foreign students, politicians, and business people to have people eating grass, stray animals, and tree part to ease their hunger pants. In smaller towns, and rural Korea, markets have from time to time been banned, suffering is much more extreme, and there is no motivation for the government to put on a show so foreigners can go home and give a positive image. I think saying that Pyongyang gives good insight into the average life of a North Korea would be like saying that walking around New York, London, or even Seoul gives us a good idea of what the average life in their respective countries is like.