Institutions of higher education in the early 1990s included colleges and universities; teachers' training colleges, with a four-year course for preparing kindergarten, primary, and secondary instructors; colleges of advanced technology with two or three-year courses; medical schools with six-year courses; special colleges for science and engineering, art, music, and foreign languages; and military colleges and academies. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

North Korea has an estimated 280 institutions of higher education and three universities. Kim Il Sung's report to the Sixth Party Congress of the KWP in October 1980 revealed that there were 170 "higher learning institutions" and 480 "higher specialized schools" that year. In 1987 there were 220,000 students attending two- or three-year higher specialized schools and 301,000 students attending four- to sixyear colleges and university courses.*

There are two kinds of higher education systems in North Korea: academic higher education and higher education for continuing education. There are three kinds of institutions: universities, professional schools, and technical schools. The continuing education system is offered at universities and attached to factories, farms, and fishery cooperatives. The Air and Correspondence University offers a five-year program. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

Higher education usually lasts five years, as there is no Master’s degree in North Korea. Rather there are two senior academic degrees:“candidate” (chunpaksa) and “doctor” (paksa).” Academic higher education is composed of universities (four to six years), College of Education for secondary school teachers (four years), Teachers' College for primary school teachers (three years), and junior colleges (three years). Advanced university degrees can be attained at graduate schools for “candidate” and doctoral study and post-doctoral schools.

School enrollment, tertiary: 27 percent
School enrollment, tertiary, male: 35 percent
School enrollment, tertiary, female: 18 percent.
Tertiary education, academic staff: 21 percent. Pupil-teacher ratio, tertiary: 9 to 1 [Source: World Bank worldbank.org

Students and Professors at Higher Education Institutions

About a sixth of the population of North Korea attends university, a large proportion for a country with such a low standard of living. Nearly 1.9 million students attended more than 300 colleges and universities in 2000. According to Eberstadt and Banister, 13.7 percent of the population sixteen years of age or older was attending, or had graduated from, institutions of higher education in 1987-88. In 1988 the regime surpassed its target of producing "an army of 1.3 million intellectuals," graduates of higher education, a major step in the direction of achieving the often-stated goal of "intellectualization of the whole society." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993; Library of Congress, July 2007]

Chong Jae Lee wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia: In 1965, there were 98 higher education schools with 156,000 students and 7,601 teachers. In 1975, school numbers increased to 150 but the number of students (92,000) and teachers (4,490) decreased. After that the numbers increased again; there were 234 schools, a total of 280,000 students, and 23,000 teachers in 1985. In 1996 school numbers reached 286 with 310,000 students. The identity of the large number of universities is not confirmed. It is just assumed that most of them are the type of attached university for continuing education. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

In 1988, UNESCO reported that North Korea had 23,000 college and university teachers, and 4,000 other post-secondary teachers. Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “The majority of North Korea’s Number One university professors are Christian fundamentalists, whose trips are sponsored by their church. Still, it is one of the few places in North Korea where you may talk to a foreigner and learn something about the outside world, and is considered very prestigious. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015; Library of Congress, July 2007]

“For a successful academic career one is required to publish articles. Because the North Korean academic community is extremely isolated (there is no internet) the level of research is not very high. Articles have to be submitted to North Korean journals and every one has to include a quote from one of the Kims introduced by one of the following formulae: “The Great Leader respected comrade Kim Il-sung taught the following…”, “The Great Guide respected comrade Kim Jong-il instructed the following…” or “The Beloved and respected comrade Kim Jong-un said the following…” This rule is followed in every article, including science subjects and mathematics. First a quote from a Kim and only then may you begin your research.” [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 23, 2015]

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust) has some strange traditions. All courses are taught in English by professors who are all foreigners. Any foreigner who is not a citizen of South Korea is welcome – regardless of qualifications – to become a professor. However, given that professors are not allowed to leave campus without permission, are not paid a salary, are not compensated for their trip to North Korea and are fed badly, very few people volunteer.

Getting Into University in Life in North Korea

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Higher education is regarded as an honor and a privilege, and as such, it is not open to the general public at will. Men and women who have served in the military would be recommended to subsequent higher education. There are also "gifted" entries to the universities and colleges, where the candidate's intellectual merit is appreciated. Normally, however, it depends on one's family background in determining whether or not one obtains the opportunity of learning at a college for years at the state's expense. (Hence, for ordinary men and women, the military is a secure detour.) Sometimes, candidates are recommended from factories and agricultural collectives, with the endorsement of the due authorities. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: Songbun — a ranking system in North Korea largely based on family background — “is an important factor in a potential student’s chances of success, and someone with a good bloodline will have relatively few problems gaining admission.Another important factor is corruption. North Korean bureaucrats take bribes readily, so bad songbun or poor results can be overcome by rewarding the admissions department. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]

▪“The army also provides opportunities to those who wish to go to university: after four years of service you can sit an internal exam and those who pass are allowed to apply to study. They will then sit a university exam and, if successful, gain admission. All North Koreans, regardless of whether they serve four or 10 years in the army (or don’t serve at all, as bribes can overcome every hurdle), are able to choose to study further.

University and Success in Life in North Korea

North Korea’s leading universities — such as Kim Il-sung University, Kim Chaek University, and Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages — as said to exist mainly to make good party officials out of its students. According to New Focus International: “Of course, efforts play a part in securing entry into a good North Korean university such as Kim Il-sung University. Nevertheless, the most important factor is the ‘family- tree’ factor. North Korean refugee Kang Ji-hoon graduated from Kim Il-sung University. He told us, “The pride that we felt about having attended a top-tier university was not so much based on having achieved something of our own accord, but rather, pride at having parents from a certain political class.” Ji-hoon added, “Since the fundamental enabler and ultimate glass-ceiling in North Korea is the ‘family-tree factor’, there is no need to stress one’s academic qualifications within North Korean society.” [Source: New Focus International, April 26, 2013

To fulfill one’s career aspirations in North Korea, belonging to a ‘top-class’ is of utmost importance; attending a ‘top-tier’ university is peripheral. If one’s parents are party officials who come from a good political background and yet the individual does not hold reasonable academic qualifications, then they are looked upon as unintelligent. But the significant point is that North Koreans attend university in order to maintain their class status, rather than from an interest in moving classes by using education as an enabling tool. North Koreans study in an educational setting where staff must take the students’ political background into account when assigning grades; their universities exist not to provide opportunities for the downtrodden, but for the explicit purpose of entrenching hereditary political privileges.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Higher education plays the very important role of supplying the revolutionary ruling elite for the party and government. The major and leading universities are major sources of elite production. In addition, various kinds of specialized institutes develop professional and managerial manpower. For this reason, emphasis is given to intensive political education. The management of the universities is under the direct supervision of the Party's Education Committee. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

Universities in North Korea

Among the leading universities and their specialized areas are Kim Il-Sung University in Humanities and Social Science, Kim Chaeck Engineering University in heavy industry, Koryo Sung Kyun Kwan University in engineering, Pyongyang Medical College, and Kim Hyung Jik College of Education. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “Of course, universities have their own hierarchy.The most prestigious institution is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), which was created by Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung University and Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages compete for the second place. Formally, Kim Il-sung University is considered superior but in practice foreign languages are better taught in the University of Foreign Languages. Graduates are usually fluent in one foreign language and have some knowledge of another.The next level is occupied by other prestigious institutions such as the University of Foreign Relations, Kim Chaek University of Technology and Pyongsong University of Science. The rest follow somewhere behind. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]

Universities in North Korea in and their schools and faculties (departments):
Kim Il Sung University Pyongyang
Un Chongjin Medical University Chongjin
Un Chongjin Metal Mining University Chongjin
Un Chongjin University of Light Industry Chongjin
Un Chongjin University of Pedagogy Chongjin
Un Hamhung University of Chemical Industry Hamhung
Un Hamhung University of Education Hamhung
Un Hamhung University of Mathematical and Physical Sciences Hamhung
Un Huichon University of Telecommunications Huichon [Source: Uni rank, 4icu.com]

Un Institute of Natural Science Pyongyang
Un Kim Chaek Industrial University Pyongyang
Un Kim Chaek University of Technology Pyongyang
Un Kim Chol Ju University of Education Pyongyang
Un Kim Hyong Jik University of Education Pyongyang
Un Kim Won Gyun Pyongyang Conservatory Pyongyang
Un Koryo Songgyungwan University Kaesong

Un Pyongyang Medical University Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Agriculture Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Architecture and Building Materials Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Music and Dance Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Printing Engineering Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Railways Pyongyang
Un Pyongyang University of Science and Technology Pyongyang
Un Rajin University of Marine Transport Rason
Un Sariwon Pharmaceutical College of Koryo Sariwon
Un Wonsan Agricultural University Wonsan

Kim Il Sung University

Kim Il Sung University, founded in October 1946, is the country's only comprehensive institution of higher education offering bachelor's, “candidate”(like a master's), and doctoral degrees. It is an elite institution whose enrollment of 16,000 full- and part-time students in the early 1990s occupies, in the words of one observer, the "pinnacle of the North Korean educational and social system." Competition for admission to its faculties is intense. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to a Korean-American scholar who visited the university in the early 1980s, only one student is admitted out of every five or six applicants. An important criterion for admission is senior middle school grades, although political criteria are also major factors in selection. A person wishing to gain acceptance to any institution of higher education has to be nominated by the local "college recommendation committee" before approval by county- and provincial-level committees. *

Kim Il Sung University's colleges and faculties include economics, history, philosophy, law, foreign languages and literature, geography, physics, mathematics, chemistry, atomic energy, biology, and computer science. There are about 3,000 faculty members, including teaching and research staff. All facilities are located on a modern, high-rise campus in the northern part of Pyongyang.*

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

By some reckonings Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), created by Kim Jong-il in the 2000s, is most prestigious higher education institution is North Korea. The plan for the university emerged in 2000 when the first meeting between the leaders of North and South Korean occurred and relations between the two Koreas at their warmest in decades. The university — largely paid for by the West and located on the outskirts of Pyongyang — opened in October 2010 and had 300 undergraduate and 70 graduate students in 2012 its three departments: electronic and computer engineering, international finance and management and agriculture and life sciences. The students have been handpicked from those who have studied at least two years at the country's top state colleges. As of 2012, all the students were men, but it is considering building a dormitory for women. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, August 4, 2012]

According to Reuters: “Everything, including tuition and living costs at dormitories, is free. Students have a monthly US$10 cash card to buy snacks at the cafeteria. Although the North Korean government provides no funding, it did mobilize 1,000 soldiers to construct the campus, which has 17 buildings, above one of which hangs a sign eulogizing” Kim Jong Un

In 2014, Chris Rogers and Marshall Corwin wrote for BBC Panorama: “Entering the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, it is immediately clear this is no ordinary academic institution. A military guard salutes us as our vehicle passes through the security checkpoint. Once inside the campus we hear the sound of marching and singing, not more guards but the students themselves. [Source: Chris Rogers and Marshall Corwin BBC Panorama, February 3, 2014]

“Inside every classroom, portraits of North Korea's brutal dictators take pride of place above the whiteboard. In North Korea, only absolute devotion to the supreme leader, and praise of all things North Korean, is permitted. According to human rights groups, that devotion is the result of conditioning from birth — and fear of execution or imprisonment in inhumane labour camps. All classes are in English and many of the lecturers are American. This is remarkable because North Korea has isolated itself from the outside world for decades and the U.S. is its hated enemy.

“The founder and president is Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim. The 78-year-old Korean-American Christian entrepreneur was invited by the regime to build a university based on a similar one he had opened in northern China. He raised much of the £20 million, it cost from American and South Korean Christian charities. "I am full of thanks to this government — they accepted me. They fully trust me and have given me all authority to operate these schools. Can you believe it?"

University Life in North Korea

A defector who graduated from a three-year teacher college told the Asahi Shimbum, “Campus life was like a military camp.” Everyday the students were woken at 5:30am and required to run two kilometers before doing marching exercise in the school cafeteria at 7:00am and singing, “Even if darkness surround us and the winds of temptation blow on us, even if the world tries to eliminate Communism, we shall protect it.” University students often have to work in the fields helping farmers carry manure and bringing in the harvests. The defector above lived in a dormitory that had no heat. So many of her friends became ill they used to joke, “we got our diplomas in exchange for getting sick.”

Alessandro Ford was the first Westerner allowed to study in North Korea. From August to December 2014, he was enrolled at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University where he stayed in a dormirory with about 90 foreign students, most of them from China. His father, Glyn Ford, who previously was a member of the European Parliament and has been on diplomatic trips to the country, helped arrange his study abroad. [Source: Alice Truong. Quartz, August 1, 2015]

Alice Truong wrote: “University life in Pyongyang was different, to say the least. Ford was closely monitored throughout his time there, and he said the university placed some local students in his dormitory so he would have someone to talk to. The facilities were bare, with squat toilets and no showers (they bathed communally “like the Romans,” he said). The dorm also ran out of hot water for two weeks during the winter, which dipped down to -20 degree Celsius. And there was absolutely no sex among the unmarried students.

“In interviews with the BBC and Guardian, the 18-year-old talked about his unique gap year experience and provided a glimpse into what his classmates thought about their country and the outside world. Here are some of the most interesting insights: North Koreans hate the American government, but the Americans are all right: “The people, the students, they hated the American government, and there was no apology about that,” said Ford. “They straight up said, ‘We detest the American government. We think they’re vermin. We think they’re evil imperialist dogs.'” But that hatred doesn’t extend to its citizens, who they believe “are merely misled” by their government.

On what North Koreans know about prison camps: Ford tiptoed around political issues, but when he asked about North Korea’s prison camps, a female friend clarified they were re-education camps. “Those are camps for when someone doesn’t understand the great leader’s political thoughts, and they simply need to be instructed,” he recalled her explaining. “She made it sound as if someone was simply ignorant about their maths homework and had to have extra classes afterward.” North Koreans are fascinated by the mundane in Western society: Many of Ford’s classmates were curious about the Western world. One friend of his spent hours asking about army life — most questions Ford didn’t have the answer to — and was surprised to learn some countries don’t have compulsory military service. “He was absolutely baffled,” Ford told the BBC. Others also asked about home prices and what the process is like to buy a house, a concept foreign to them because the state assigns housing to its residents.”

Students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

According to the BBC, students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology “are the sons of some of the most powerful men in North Korea, including senior military figures. "Our supreme commander Kim Jong-un, we will defend him with our lives," they sing as they march to breakfast. "Patriotism is a tradition," explains a 20-year-old first-year student. "The songs we sing as we march are in thanks to our Great Leader." There are 500 students here — dressed smartly in black suits, white shirts, red ties and black, peaked caps with briefcases at their sides. They are all hand-picked by Kim Jong-un's regime to receive a Western education. [Source: Chris Rogers and Marshall Corwin BBC Panorama, February 3, 2014]

:The university's official aim is to equip them with the skills to help modernise the impoverished country and engage with the international community. The students explain they are warming to Americans — if not the U.S. government.

''Of course at first we were nervous, but we now believe American people are different from the US," says one student. "We want to make good relationship with all countries," adds another.

Among the duties that students perform every day is a parade-ground workout before lunch Even during the guarded conversations that we are allowed, it is clear some students are keen to connect with the outside world. "We are learning foreign languages because foreign language is the eye of scientists," says one undergraduate. "And learning a language is learning a culture. I want more of that."

Classes, Internet Access and Professors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

According to the BBC: Lecturer Colin McCulloch gives his time for free. Some of the other 40 lecturers are sponsored by Christian charities. Mr McCulloch has moved from Yorkshire to teach business to the regime's future elite. He splits the students into groups and tells them to form their own fantasy companies and compile their profit projections. In a country where the supply of all goods is controlled by the regime, the concept of a free market is new to the students."I'm sure the leaders and the government here recognise they need to connect with the outside world," Mr McCulloch tells us. "It's not possible to be a totally hermetic, closed economy in the modern age." [Source: Chris Rogers and Marshall Corwin BBC Panorama, February 3, 2014]

“The university's foreign lecturers are up against a lifetime of propaganda and conditioning — and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, as we discover when American Erin Fink invites us to take part in her English class. "It will be good for you to listen to these guys because their accent is very different from my accent — they speak British English," she explains to her first year undergraduates. They tell us they like a North Korean girl group called the Moranbong Music Band, one of Kim Jong-un's latest propaganda tools. When we mention Michael Jackson, we get a room full of blank faces. We try again. "Raise your hands if you've heard of Michael Jackson." Not a single arm goes up.You might have thought students would have found out about Michael Jackson from the Internet — unlike most of North Korea it is available at the university.But in the computer room a female minder censors all internet access. It is strictly no email, no social media, and no international news.

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: “Unlike most of the rest of the heavily controlled society, for whom use of the Internet is largely proscribed, the students can google their way around the Web. "We have only one IP address, so students can't spend a long time for the internet. They only use it for their study," Park said. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, August 4, 2012]

Studying Capitalism at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

Ju-min Park of Reuters wrote: Capitalism, in hermit North Korea, is normally associated with moral and economic ruin. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, co-founded by Chan-mo Park, is teaching dozens of North Koreans the skills of a modern market economy, something the impoverished state has managed for decades to avoid. "I want whatever they learn to be used to revive their country's economy," Park told Reuters in an interview in Seoul, one of the world's most wired cities in sharp contrast to Pyongyang which even though it is home to North Korea's elite, struggles to provide its residents with power or heating. "We emphasize practicality and commercialization of their knowledge," said the 77-year-old computer scientist, who used to be president of a South Korean university. [Source: Ju-min Park, Reuters, August 4, 2012]

The students, Park says, are industrious and keen to learn. "Students study very hard to learn (about the Western economy). Although they have some weaknesses in basics, they have no problem to catch up because they are good at math." Asked if they found capitalism an alien concept, he said: "Even students from the information technology field already know they should learn about the economy to make money...International finance and management study is very popular. Maybe it is because the dean (of that department) ... told students in a seminar: 'If you do this, you can make lots of money'," a smiling Park said.

“The official line, however, remains deeply suspicious of an economic system where markets rather than the state have a major say. "The lifestyle based on the law of the jungle and all descriptions of immorality and depravity are turning capitalist society into the world of violence and crimes ... capitalism is on its way to ruin," was the view of one recent article in the state daily Rodong Sinmun.

North Korea Shuts down Universities for 10 Months in 2011-2012

In June 2011, North Korea announced it would close its universities for 10 months and send students to work at factories, farms and construction sites to help firm up the economy. Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: Reports in South Korea indicated that the government in Pyongyang ordered all universities to cancel classes until April of 2012. The only exemptions are for students who will be graduating in the next few months and foreign students. The reports suggested that the students will be put to work on construction projects in major cities while there are also indications that repair work may be needed in agricultural regions that were affected by a major typhoon recently. [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, June 28, 2011]

“Analysts in Japan claim there may be other reasons behind the decision to disperse the students across the country. "One reason is that there is a possibility of demonstrations at university campuses," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and author of a number of books on the North Korean leadership. "The leadership has seen the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Africa and it is very frightened that the same thing could happen in North Korea," he said. "They fear it could start in the universities."

Professor Shigemura also said that North Korea has purchased anti-riot equipment from China in recent months, including tear gas and batons, while there has been an increased police presence at key points in Pyongyang in recent months.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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