Demand for private education, English tutoring grows in North Korea

Despite an official ban on private education, North Korea's tutoring market is expanding, with a particular focus on learning English.

Ji Da-gyum

Ji Da-gyum

The Korea Herald


People pay their respects before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill as North Korea marks its 78th National Liberation Day, commemorating the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, in Pyongyang on Tuesday. PHOTO: AFP/ THE KOREA HERALD

August 18, 2023

SEOUL – Despite an official ban on private education, North Korea’s tutoring market is expanding, with a particular focus on learning English, according to a survey conducted by South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

Among individuals who escaped North Korea before the year 2000, only 3.2 percent had taken private classes, while the percentage of defectors who received private education surged among those who came to South Korea after 2011.

Of those who defected from North Korea between 2011 and 2015, and between 2016 and 2022, 13.2 and 14.1 percent had received private tutoring, respectively.

The ministry surveyed 6,348 North Korean defectors who left their home country by 2020 and resettled in South Korea.

A separate survey conducted on 287 North Korean defectors who escaped the country between 2006 and 2020 and who had received private education revealed substantial expansions in the realm of private English tutoring.

Traditionally, mathematics and arts have held significant importance in North Korea, leading to many students pursuing private education in these subjects. However, more students are enrolling in private English classes, a senior official from the Unification Ministry, who opted to remain anonymous, explained during a closed-door briefing.

The percentage of individuals taking private English lessons has increased from 12.5 percent between 2006 and 2010, to 17.1 percent between 2011 and 2015, to 27.7 percent between 2016 and 2020, according to the survey.

The percentage of individuals receiving private tutoring in the field of arts experienced fluctuations, with rates of 35, 39, and 33.8 percent during the same period, respectively.

But mathematics continues to hold the highest importance, as 37.5, 47.9, and 47.7 percent of respondents respectively answered that they had received private math tutoring over the same time frame.

Another noteworthy trend in North Korea is that the number of full-time private tutors has grown in recent years.

A separate survey involving 1,009 North Korean defectors — who escaped between 2006 and 2020 and were either recipients of private education or witnessed others receiving private tutoring — indicates a noticeable rise in the presence of full-time private tutors.

“The data suggest that the individuals are involved in private education as their main profession, rather than as a side job,” the ministry official said.

In a survey that allowed for multiple responses, the proportion of school teachers among private education providers has declined based on defectors’ responses, from 64.1 percent between 2006 and 2010, to 60.1 percent between 2011 and 2015, to 43.5 percent between 2016 to 2020.

Following the economic challenges of the 1990s and the decline in public education, teachers who found it challenging to sustain themselves on their salaries turned to private tutoring as an additional source of income.

The percentage of respondents who received private education from full-time private teachers or know of someone who has jumped from 32.4 percent between 2006 to 2010, to 34.3 percent between 2011 and 2015, to 49.7 percent between 2016 and 2020.

The Unification Ministry estimates that the average basic monthly income in North Korea is 200,000 North Korean won. This figure is based on interviews with approximately 50 defectors who escaped the country between 2013 and 2019.

By official North Korean government rates, 200,000 won is about $222. However, the market rate which experts say more clearly reflects the actual economic conditions in the country is about $24.

The unnamed ministry official explained that North Koreans spend about 10 percent of their basic monthly income on private tutoring, without providing any additional information.

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