When I entered college in the California State University system in 2006, the tuition fee for full-time students per academic year was $2,520; it has now been increased to $5,472 for the upcoming academic year. In the U.S. and in most parts of the world, education is a commodity that only a handful of privileged people can buy. Amidst my friends struggling to register for their classes, I left college with a degree in guilt and responsibility.
I tried to imagine a society in which everyone has equitable access to education, health care, and other social services–not because I’m a socialist, but because such a society makes more sense to me. I tried to imagine a community in which everyone encouraged each other to continue educating themselves, because I believe in the power of knowledge. I imagined really hard, and then I found myself in north Korea.
Was I in a utopia? I do not know. I did, nevertheless, find some of the country’s ideals to be preferable to a system that inevitably results in some children left behind. I draw two examples here: educational philosophy and health care system.
Out of several site visits related to north Korean education, I was particularly impressed by two things. One was the Mangyeondae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, where children selected from other palaces all over the country come to practice what they like and nourish their talents for arts and sports. The huge building is marble-floored and equipped with many practice rooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a computer room, and a concert hall. (Maybe more, since we did not see everything.) The children come here every day after school for three hours to learn from the country’s best teachers of music, dance, calligraphy, embroidery, volleyball or basketball. This system of national art and physical education encourages children and prevents their passions from fading away unrecognized. During the visit, I kept thinking about how less and less emphasis is put on this type of education in the U.S. I can only imagine how much I would have liked to spend my childhood singing or playing instruments every day, without worrying whether I would become good enough to make money.
I was also impressed by the Grand People’s Study House, which is located literally at the very center of the city of Pyongyang. This magnificent building looks like a castle with its emerald green rooftops; in other countries, it might have functioned as the president’s house or the national assembly hall. However, it is used as the center of adult continuing education because of the country’s educational philosophy–all citizens should keep intellectualizing themselves regardless of their occupations, whether they are farmers, workers, or soldiers. Thus, students do not have access to this House as they have school libraries. The main focus of the Study House is a series of lectures and discussions on various topics; therefore, although it has a book lending function, it is not simply a library. In addition, they offer 5-month study programs for non-students in the mornings and evenings, providing intellectual opportunities for everyone. I imagined my mother frequenting this building to satisfy her voracious enthusiasm for learning other languages.
Another example I draw is health care system, and I highlight our hospital visits here. We visited a maternity hospital where most of the babies in Pyongyang are born and the Koryo Science Medicine Institute, which offers traditional Eastern medicine treatment. Because human capital is directly correlated to the nation’s overall productivity, adults take good care of babies and children. Whenever the country is faced with food shortages, places like this maternity hospital or baby homes are the priority recipients of food aid. At the Koryo medicine hospital, I felt envious because traditional Eastern medicine is valued in north Korea as much as Western medicine; my mother is an acupuncturist, and I prefer Eastern medicine, but I do not always have access to that kind of health care, let alone free treatment.
Yes, it’s all free–housing, education, health care, child care, everything. I used to have difficulty imagining such social services being free of charge because of the society in which I grew up. It’s possible when people unite and work together, when everyone contributes to and benefit from everyone. The DPRK’s socialism is not, as they say, complete yet. It may not align perfectly with my personal vision of equity either. Just a single visit to the DPRK did not and does not reveal everything, but I certainly gained insight into their daily lives and contrasted with the social issues I observe in other countries–homelessness, unemployment, poor medical conditions, illiteracy, and so on. There is always a room to grow for each of us, as well as opportunities to work together. I am glad to say that we have taken another step.