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Hungry for school in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
By Ahn Mi-Young, Inter Press Service
 

  Dozens of white-shirted students are seriously debating philosophy at the Kim Il-Sung University in the Democratic People's Republic of Korean capital of Pyongyang, said to have 10,000 students and 2,500 lecturers.

 
  In a kindergarten elsewhere in the city, scores of children are dancing and talking like dolls, having fun
 
  These scenes, shot by two journalists from the neighboring Republic of Korea granted rare access to the North in September last year.
 
  While they conveyed images of as normal a life as possible in he Democratic People's Republic of Korea, they contrast with the condition of children gleaned from independent reports of health and malnutrition problems for youngsters in the Stalinist country, which has been grappling with years of food shortages.
 
  Children in fact are one of the worst hit by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's dire economic straits -- and unhealthy and sick children can hardly get a proper education.
 
  The latest United Nations reports say that 18 per cent of infants and 30 per cent of 1-year-olds in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have malnutrition. This in turn threatens to blight a whole generation with 'lifelong disabilities'.
 
  Indeed, last month, the United Nations asked its member countries to provide US$330 million in fresh food aid to the country in the year 2000.
 
  Getting food for day-to-day survival is the main preoccupation for many youngsters in this country of 21 million people.
 
Assessing Education for All efforts
 
  The EFA 2000 Assessment Report, prepared for an Asia-Pacific regional conference on education in Bangkok (January) by the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korean concedes that things are not ideal, but that the government is trying its best.
 
  The massive floods that hit the country in 1994 cost US$144.88 million in total damages, affecting 5.2 million people living in 145 counties, according to the report.
 
  'During those floods, 4,120 kindergartens (nearly 30 per cent of the total) and 2,290 primary and secondary schools were washed away, destroyed, or submerged by water, said the document, causing damage that has not been easy for this cash-strapped country to address.
 
  The report discusses the status of education in the country in the light of goals set under the Education for All (EFA) initiative, launched at the World Conference on Education for All in 1990 and which affects both children's education and adult literacy.
 
  Needless to say, a government hard-pressed on basic survival needs finds looking after basic services a tall task. Apart from physical and other damage, catastrophic floods and famine in recent years are believed to have killed up to 3 million of the country's 21 million people.
 
   The Pyongyang government admits that it may be short on food to feed its children. Pictures of starving youngsters have been shown to the outside world, but says it has remained committed to increasing educational spending for free, universal eleven-year-compulsory education for all children since 1972.
 
   Indeed, it quotes its leader, Kim Jong-Il, as saying, "Education is one of the fundamental factors on which depend the prosperity of the country and the future destiny of the nation."
 
  The report goes back in history to cite gains in education made over the decades, but these figures do not tell all, analysts in South Korea say.
 
  "There is a problem in the quality of education, especially with the floods that left a lot of students helpless at home with little food. There are (also) numerous programmes for collective training labour that eats away many studying time," says Han Man-gilof the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI) in Seoul.
 
  Prior to August 1945, says the assessment report, there was not a university in the northern half of the republic and if any, just one or two secondary schools in each province. These secondary schools admitted only 2 per cent of those who finished the primary schools.
 
  Before that time, more than 65 per cent of the school-aged children did not go to school. Likewise, 2.3 million or 80 per cent of the adult population were illiterate.
 
   Thus, the government says that the Education for All initiative was reviewed at the global end--of-the-decade assessment, corresponds to the ideals of its own ideology of 'juche'.
 
   Pyongyang's report lists the figures about schools -- 27,017 four-year nurseries (for 1,575,000 children), 14,167 two-year kindergartens (for 748,416 pupils), 4,886 four-year primary schools (for 1,609,865 pupils), 4,772 six-year senior middle schools (for 2,181,524 students), and more than 300 universities and colleges, where it has 1.89 million students and academics.
 
  The report adds that nurseries and kindergartens are found wherever there are women and children -- in urban residential quarters, villages, factories and enterprises, and work-teams in co-operative farms. But the fact is that many starving children have remained at home in recent years.
 
  Yet in many ways, the ideal youth for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are people like Jong Sung-ok, who won a medal at a women's marathon race in Spain last summer. "My parents gave birth to me. The nation has since fed, educated and brought me up for nothing. So I owe it to the nation to everything to achieve what I am," she says.
 
  Still, experts say that change is also underway in the country, even if the outside world gets little first-hand news about the reclusive country.
 
  "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is no longer what it used to be -- like a cocoon sitting alone in a closet," says Han of the KEDI. "The citizens are increasingly curious about changes in outside world, and a growing number of young people no longer are a blind followers to the collective rule of the closed society."
 
  He says that the country, too, has opened its eyes to what is probably normally seen as ''elite'' education -- to provide a few talented students at special middle schools with computer training and lessons in math, science and foreign languages.
 
This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
 
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