Growing Up in North Korea
This past week our family celebrated our son’s preschool graduation, our 21st wedding anniversary, and our oldest daughter’s high school graduation. The high school graduation was particularly a momentous occasion in our family’s life since our daughter has primarily been homeschooled her entire education. Her education resembled nothing of the ordinary. She was schooled on the train, on the airplane, and on the bumpy road while we traveled from clinic to clinic throughout the countryside of North Korea in our jeep. Her classrooms were not only on the road but more often than not in a hotel room, sometimes without electricity and heating in the dead of winter when the temperatures drop far below freezing.
Living inside North Korea was full of challenges but also privileges. Our greatest privilege was to live there together as a family with our three children. But this also meant a life of constant transition. Constant traveling can be fun as a single but trying to raise three children on the road is not easy, especially as we were constantly in a stage of transition. Until we had a stable residence in Pyongyang, our family traveled back and forth from China to North Korea on a regular basis. Our children lived for several weeks at a time in a hotel room with no internet and usually no hot water. It was an adventurous life. We enjoyed playing card games together, strolling down the local streets, and cooking over our portable, gas-operated stove. Every few weeks we would return to China for more supplies, fellowship, and communication with the outside world.
Constant transition was our life in rural North Korea until our family had the opportunity to move to the capital city of Pyongyang in 2013. Whereas rural North Korea gave our children freedom to run outdoors, play with our company dogs, and travel with us as we distributed humanitarian aid, Pyongyang offered the glamour of a city. Like our life in the country, we initially lived out of a hotel. Through a diplomatic club for the international community, the kids had the opportunity to take music, swimming, and art lessons. The city also provided familiar family activities such as visiting the zoo, riding rollercoasters at amusement parks, and even watching dolphin shows.
Eventually, one of the main privileges we enjoyed living in North Korea was sending our children to school in Pyongyang. For the first several years, we primarily homeschooled our children. In rural parts of North Korea, there were no other options, but when we moved to Pyongyang we were given the opportunity to send our kids to the Pyongyang Korean School for Foreigners. After years of having mom for a teacher and their siblings for classmates, our children were more than happy to go to school with other kids their age.
Located in the Munsu-Dong Foreign Embassy Compound on the east side of the city, Pyongyang Korean School for Foreigners educates the children of staff from diplomatic and humanitarian agencies. Although the school is K through 12, there are usually no more than fifty students, but they come from about twenty-five different nations. The community is small but highly diverse because of the numerous embassies and agencies on the foreign compound. Each country is represented at the school by one or two families.
Our children learned and played with kids from Nigeria, Ethiopia, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Mongolia, Sweden, Pakistan, Syria and more. It was the best cross-cultural education one could find in North Korea. The school focused on math and sciences, and since the children were from all over the world, English was taught as a second language for foreign language learners. Korean, art, music, and physical education were also taught, but no ideology or history. The only social science taught in the school was geography. Our children thoroughly enjoyed going to school in the morning and then supplementing their education through homeschool in the afternoon. Combining the two was demanding. Our children had to keep up with both American and Korean education systems simultaneously, which required them to study practically all day, every day.
Pyongyang Korean School for Foreigners was a unique experience because all the teachers and administrators were North Korean. They would use North Korean textbooks translated into English which made it like attending school in North Korea in English without the classes in ideology. This gave us a glimpse into the education system and culture of North Korea.
Of course, there were a few struggles adjusting to another culture and to the way that they do school. Since our lives were so mobile and we traveled often, there were times we had to miss a substantial amount of school. We were grateful for the school’s understanding of our nomadic lifestyle and for the way they accommodated our family’s schedule. But it was difficult for our kids to keep up with school while we were away. This was more than the normal struggles of homeschooling. Textbooks in North Korea are written so that in order to properly learn a subject, the student must learn directly from the teacher. Teachers fill in information gaps that are not covered in the textbook. Curriculum is developed so as to ensure that the student is dependent on the teacher. In North Korea, pupils are not meant to learn in isolation.
When our family first left for overseas, people often asked us, “Why are you leaving the US and taking your children to Asia when others are coming to the US for a better education?”
Our children may not have had the best education that the world has to offer, but they were able to travel to 14 countries, live in four of them, and be the first US citizens to have attended school in Pyongyang, DPRK. While attending school in Pyongyang, they were able to make friends from over 25 nations, including many diplomat families, and learn to speak three languages. Despite their technologically outdated education, we would not have traded their experience for the best education the US has to offer.
Someday our family would like to return to our home in Pyongyang. We do not know when this might be, but we hope that it will be one day soon. But we are grateful for the opportunity our children had to grow up in North Korea. It taught us to be grateful for the simple things in life and how to learn to love others different from ourselves. We learned to love the people of North Korea. Because for our children and our family, when we think of the word home, our hearts turn to Pyongyang, North Korea.