Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Teacher" (스승): Education reform and the next generation

"Teacher" (Sŭsŭng) is a short story by Kim Sam Buk which appeared in the collection A Promise of Fire (Bul ŭi Yaksok), one of the first short stories to directly chronicle the new leader's exploits. It follows the discussion around reforming North Korea's compulsory education system from 11 years to 12 years, a change which was ratified by the Supreme People's Assembly in September 2012.

North Korean elementary school classroom
Src: CNN
Half of the story follows Kim Jong Un as he pushes elderly officials to enact the education reforms. The other half follows a family of educators, the Shims, as they are given a new apartment in the new Changjŏn Street high-rise housing complex.

The story opens with Miyŏng, the oldest Shim daughter, on her way home from another late tutoring session with her most problematic students. Miyŏng is feeling discouraged at her job. It seems that some of her students make no progress no matter how hard she tries. She plans to quit teaching as soon as she gets married.

One student in particular has her worried: Chae Il, age 13, a friendly boy with a good attitude, who struggles with his schoolwork. He can answer questions correctly, most of the time, but he can't explain his reasoning, even simple things he should have mastered a year ago. Miyŏng has gone so far as to set up after-school tutoring sessions for the students like Chae Il who are struggling, but it doesn't seem to be helping. A few weeks ago she visited Chae Il's parents at their home and expressed her concerns, but his mother seemed to shift all the blame onto the school. "If you can't teach them properly, what's the point of sending them to school?" She is so lost in thought that she trips and sprains her ankle.

Suddenly a car pulls up alongside her. The passenger, a well-dressed and distinguished-looking older gentleman, notices her limp and offers her a ride home. This not being Los Angeles, she accepts. The man asks how she injured her ankle, and she proceeds to unload about the difficulties she's been having as a teacher. The problem, in her opinion, is that the kids are learning too many things at once. As a result, they learn only superficially and forget soon afterward. The man listens with interest, asking many questions about where she teaches, how her students are doing, why she's teaching late evening classes, etc. From his appearance he must be a high-level official and yet somehow she finds him easy to talk to.  He drops her off at home and drives away.

Miyŏng is greeted by her younger sister, also a teacher, who is buzzing with good news: Their move-in day has been scheduled! The family has been allotted an apartment in the spanking new Changjŏn Street housing complex, a cluster of modern high-rise buildings in the heart of the capital. The family can't believe their luck; everyone knows that manual laborers and model workers (혁신자) get priority in housing. Miyŏng forgets her worries in the excitement of their upcoming move.

Abruptly, their father clears his throat and turns off the TV, signaling he has something important to say.
   "Except for our son who is off serving in the army, and grandmother who staying with my brother, our whole family is gathered here tonight. Since we are all teachers, I want you all to take my words to heart...  Miyŏng-sŏnsaeng was the last to arrive, but I understand that was because she was helping some students." It was his habit to address family members as "sŏnsaeng" [teacher], even his own daughters. "Now is a time when we teachers must take a serious look to our own failings. Our problem is that we do not even try to find out if we are teaching effectively. Like Miyŏng, we just fuss over our students without making progress. I'm no different. The reason I'm saying this is because I learned today that Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un gave a criticism that cut to the heart of the defects in our middle-school education system."
   Everyone held their breath in suspense, especially Miyŏng.
   "Our Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un argued that our education method has failed to evolve from the old system of rote memorization, pointing out that our children are unable to grasp the deeper principles at work behind phenomena and fail to acquire fundamental knowledge. Thus he has called for improving our education methods and for raising the quality of instruction, saying that the teachers' abilities reflect upon the students. Following his instructions, the education ministry is now looking into education reform."
Miyŏng reflects on her father's words, realizing that for all her struggles with her failing students, she had never once thought to improve her own abilities.


Kim Jong Un is in his garden meeting with Ri Hŏn Sun, a long-serving senior member of the Education Commission and septuagenarian professor and who once taught him philosophy. They both address each other respectfully but the professor uses slightly more formal honorifics to refer to Kim. Kim asks Ri what is troubling him. Ri responds that his revered mentor just celebrated his 79th birthday; at the party, the venerable professor took Ri aside and criticized him.
   "He attacked me saying, 'The Dear Comrade Kim Jong Un has woken you up to the fact that our middle school education system has failed to reach a suitable standard. You sit in a high seat on the Education Commission, and yet what do you do? Were you not moved by the Moranbong Band concert?'"
Moranbong Band concert circa 2013; Src: Hangyoreh 
   The Moranbong Concert had made quite a stir. You could say that their main purpose was to sound a warning bell against habitual, rigid, backward ways of doing business. Their fresh, strong and dynamic performance is what makes them so distinctive... It stirred everyone in attendance to wake from their stupor and look around at the world. It returned the elderly to the feeling of their youth and made them quicken their steps. As society advances with the times, the people's demand for new things grows. The Moranbong concert keenly reflected the spirit of the times, and it signaled a new model for creative and innovative thinking.
   Hearing that this mentor of Ri Hŏn Sun's had mentioned the Moranbong concert in this way, Comrade Kim Jong Un was reminded anew of how much that concert had moved people.
   "He's ten years my senior, and yet my mentor still has a keen sense for the times," Ri continued. "He said that it was time for me to pass my position to the next generation, and fill my days writing memoirs or some such. I said I was studying middle school education reform as instructed by Kim Jong Un, but he argued that a younger cadre would be better suited to the task.
   "On my way home from the party I encountered a young woman limping home. I gave her a ride home and found out she was a middle school math teacher. She worked so hard for her students, and she said a few of them were exceptional, but more than half simply memorized formulas without really understanding them. I felt remorse that we education officials have been unable to offer our teachers a better strategy."
Hearing this story, Kim Jong Un observes that the education system is failing because it hasn't received enough investment from the state and is badly in need of reform. He wonders why the experienced officials haven't been able to come up with a better strategy yet.

Kim gestures for Ri to sit with him in the garden and he expounds at length about the problems in education as he sees them. The teachers are blindly following old formulas; they need to devise a new "juche education" method for modern times. They also need better training to improve teachers' own abilities. Ri reverently takes notes.

To prepare effective reforms, Kim decrees that the education ministers should go out to schools around the country and observe the actual conditions.

That night Kim hosts a banquet with the education ministers to talk about their plans. He tells them the story of the young teacher, Shim Miyŏng, who was found limping home from late after-school tutoring session; he also mentions an elementary school teacher he once met whose voice had been destroyed by years of teaching. He tells the assembled officials they must work harder to find solutions for hard-working teachers like these.

New residential complexes at Changjŏn Street
Src: DailyNK
Days later, KJU is touring a construction site in the city when he receives a report on the families pre-selected to move in to the new Changjŏn complex. An official explains that priority is being given to hard laborers and model workers. KJU comments that first priority should go to families where both parents are hard laborers. Then he notes that some apartments are being allotted to teachers, and he says the teachers should be given the spacious apartments on the lower floors "since they work from early morning to late at night for the children."

The education officials take KJU's words to heart and feel deeply ashamed of their past complacent attitude about education reform. They embark on a massive listening tour of various schools, speaking directly with teachers and students about their problems. Ri Hŏn Sun pays a visit to the school of the now-famous Shim Miyŏng, who is delighted to recognize the very same official who gave her a lift home that night. 

They discuss the problems the children are having and come to the conclusion that they are trying to teach too many things too fast. The burden has increased over time as the number of subjects they need to teach has risen. Elementary education used to be just language and arithmetic, but now kids have to learn English, computers etc; 4 years is simply not enough. Also, younger students do better with hands-on learning, and their curricula should incorporate this. Miyŏng eagerly anticipates the education reform, knowing her input has been incorporated.

Ri comments that with all her hard work she must have little time for herself, and he asks if she reads any novels for fun. She admits that she only finds time on Sundays.


Back at the Shim's household, the long-awaited move-in permit has arrived. The family moves into their new apartment and is overwhelmed to find they have been given a spacious 5-room apartment the third floor of building 1. Their 78-year-old grandmother weeps with joy as she grasps the move-in permit in trembling hands.


KJU meets with senior education officials to discuss the education reforms. They are all impressed with his youthful energy and the fact that he has found time in his busy schedule to evaluate their reports and recommendations. It is decided that elementary education should be expanded from four years to five, in order to accommodate the increased subject matter required to build a modern workforce. It is also determined "after assessing actual school conditions and researching the education systems of other countries" that teacher training must be made a priority. Capable teachers are essential for producing "reliable workers for the country" (나라의 믿음직한 역군).

It is further decided that the six years of middle school should be broken up into 3 years of early middle and 3 years of late middle school. This is to accommodate the differences in temperament and learning styles between preteens and teenagers that were observed by the teachers they spoke with. Also, it is felt that older students tend to act more immature when put together with younger students in the same school.

Finally, KJU declares that the state will invest more funds toward teacher training and supplying schools with technology for hands-on learning. "It goes without saying, the cost to students will be nothing," he concludes.


As autumn approaches KJU announces that he would like to visit some of the families that have just moved into the new Changjŏn apartments. He flusters his aides by rather abruptly announcing, mid-afternoon, that he wants to visit now rather than bother people at dinnertime. "But the heads of household will all still be at work," they protest. "How will we get them all assembled and ready in time?"

KJU visiting defense corps on southwest island via wooden
dingy, March 2013. Take that, General Washington.
Src: Daum
But KJU insists, saying he'd rather just show up unannounced so he can see "how people really live." He recalls how much fun he had when he made an unannounced visit to a southwestern island defense battery, riding "a tiny wooden boat out to sea" to an ecstatic greeting by the surprised soldiers.

KJU enters building 1, ascends the stairs to the third floor and promptly visits the Shim family. He sets them at ease by joking, "Are you mad at me for visiting so suddenly?" After viewing all the rooms, he sits down in the living room with the whole family arrayed around him. He hands the father a pack of matches, noting that it a Korean tradition to bring matches to a house-warming.

KJU and wife visit a family in the Changjŏn complex,
January 2013. Src: RFA
At this point Miyǒng's mother candidly expresses her amazement that they were given such an apartment.
   "We really couldn't believe it; how could an ordinary family like ours get such good fortune? When we got the moving permit we couldn't believe our eyes, that such a home was really ours."
   Comrade Kim Jong Un chuckled. "Families of educators such as yours don't have it easy. It's fantastic that you are all teachers. Teachers should be given the highest respect in our society and it's only natural that you should have such a home. When they see how I sought out your family first, others will take notice."
KJU goes on to talk about how important education is to the nation's future, particularly middle school and particularly math and science. Miyŏng listens to all this in awed silence; she never realized how important her profession was before. She now feels ashamed that she had so looked forward to quitting as soon as she got married.

Throughout this reverie KJU continues: "I hear that some teachers are struggling under such difficult conditions that they are even considering quitting." At this point Miyŏng bursts into tears.

Embarrassed, her father explains to KJU that Miyŏng had been struggling with her students and had regretted becoming a teacher.

Hearing her name, KJU immediately makes the connection that this must be the very same Shim Miyŏng, middle-school math teacher, that Ri Hŏn Sun told him about. Miyŏng is astounded that the Dear Leader knows her name. He explains that Ri is the official who drove her home that night, and her conversation with him had helped influence the education reform. Miyŏng, sobbing, protests that she is not worthy as an educator, she who failed her own students, longing for her wedding day only so she could quit her job.

KJU responds, "Miyŏng, hold your head high. I am certain that in the future all our people will know of you and the nation will remember you as a great teacher." He concludes by saying he is proud to know such a splendid family of educators, and promising to invest the state's resources heavily in education for the nation's future.

After he leaves, the family stares at one another in amazement. The father breaks the silence, saying "What day is it?" Of course, they must mark this day and commemorate it forever as the day their family met the Leader. The family talks late into the night, celebrating together their renewed pride in their profession.

The story ends with the line: "Kim Jong Un is the great teacher of us all!"

Attitudes about Education

Miyŏng comes from a family of educators. Her father feels strongly that education is the nation's 흥망성쇠 (key to prosperity), even more now than in the past, and he pushes all his children to become teachers. In defiance, Miyŏng takes the exam for the mechanical engineering college that her father taught at, but to her surprise she finds herself placed in the education department instead. As a result she ends up unhappily teaching middle school math.

The primary difficulty Miyŏng's students face is in understanding the logical reasoning behind the formulas that they have memorized. This is explained through the example of finding the area for a triangle; students can recite the formula 1/2 b*h, but they can't explain the reasoning behind it. This is due to them being forced to learn too many things to quickly early in their fundamental schooling. There is also a long discursus on the pedagogical differences between 11-13 year-olds and 14-17 year-olds. The former are very emotional and impulsive, and learn best through hands-on practice. The latter are calmer and better able to understand abstract concepts.

The story takes pains to draw a direct line between education and economic development, particularly in the sciences. In his talk with Ri, KJU admonishes that middle school education is not "meeting the demands of the knowledge economy era" (지식경제 시대의 요구), saying that middle school education in particular is vital to cultivate "useful personnel" (쓸모있는 인재) in science and technology. He particularly wants to emphasize math, physics, chemistry and biology.  The story repeats variations of the same line twice: "Scientific development must precede economic growth, and science develops through education."  (경제력의 장성은 과학의 발전이 앞서야 이루어지며 과학은 교육을 통해 발전한다.; 과학을 발전시키고 경제장성을 이룩하자면 교육, 특히 중등일반교육을 개선해야 합니다.)

At several points this phrase is repeated: "If the roots are strong the fruit will ripen fully." (뿌리가 든든해야 충실한 열매가 달립니다) This is one of many examples of plant analogies that appear in North Korean fiction. Recent stories are replete with references to "fruit" "seeds" and "ripening," following along with the general concept of the country and its people reaching maturity and finally beginning to bear fruit after a long hard winter. When speaking with the Shims at their new apartment, KJU remarks: "Just as one cannot see the roots of a big tree, the labor of teachers is not immediately visible but becomes apparent through the next generation."

In the scene where KJU is discussing reforms with his officials, there is surprisingly blunt mention of the impact the famine ("Arduous March") of the 90s had on education: "The Arduous March weakened the material and technical support base of the schools (교육이 물질기술적토대가 약해지고), and teacher's living standards were hit as well (교원들의 생활이 어려워졌다). But now the country has entered a new age of prosperity. Now that our military and economy are improving, we must revitalize education as well."

A Good Cadre

One odd thing about this story is the presence of a government official who is not Kim Jong Un and yet who appears to have high personal magnetism and capability - that is, the character Ri Hŏn Sun. He is even described using terms typically used for the leaders: a "booming voice" (잘 울리는 목소리) and "confident gaze" (침착한 눈빛), distinguished, easy to confide in. He is described in such warm terms on his first appearance as the anonymous gentleman who drives Miyŏng home that I expected him to turn out to be a member of the Kim family.

In particular, his "discovery" and cultivation of the teacher Miyŏng closely mirrors the familiar pattern in which one of the Leaders discovers a "diamond in the rough" in some field of the arts or technology and cultivates his/her talent (a pattern seen in "Uri ŭi Mŏt" and "Piyŏnanŭn Ggum"). Ri is not perfect - he takes on some measure of blame for failing to reform education sooner - but it is he who identifies the key problems in education by talking with Miyŏng and conveys the information to KJU. This is very unusual in the fiction I have read thus far.

Given the amount of attention Ri gets in this story it is likely that this character represents a high-level official in real life, but I was unable to determine exactly who based on the scant biographical details given: 70 years old, a former philosophy professor with a long record of service on the Education Commission (교육위원회).

While Ri uses honorifics and formal speech when talking with KJU, KJU also speaks formally to Ri, using a more respectful tone than I have heard him give to any other character aside from his own father. KJU speaks more formally to Ri than he did to his college artillery science professor in Blossoming Dreams, for instance.

Age and Effectiveness

The seventy-year-old Ri Hŏn Sun wonders if he should step down and let "the next generation" take over; his even older mentor actually tells him a younger person can do his job better. Hearing this, Kim Jong Un responds somewhat ambivalently that it may indeed be true that a younger person could do it better, but Ri must carry out his duties to the end.

The education officials Kim Jong Un speaks with are referred to as "로교육자" (aged educators). When he meets with his education officials to discuss the reform package, KJU's relative youth is emphasized: "In his flashing eyes, passionate energy, and youthful bearing, the education officials could feel the vital breathing of the motherland."

When the two elderly officials are discussing the Moranbong Band concert, they specifically emphasize the youthful energy of the performance, saying it "returned the elderly to the feeling of their youth and made them quicken their steps."