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North Korea's International Education: Why and How North Koreans Study Abroad

North Korea's International Education

North Koreans studying the German language visited Berlin's FU campus for three weeks in January 2020 Photo By Yonhap Agency Via. Deutsche Welle

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been infamous on the world stage for its dictatorship government and use of isolationist policies that actively control the flow of information in and out of the country (Cathcart, 2014). This active effort by the government leaves the domestic population forced to rely heavily on information derived primarily from the official government channels such as educational institutions, state media, or through illegal means (King, 2021). This position allows the DPRK's one-party state to directly influence the predominant beliefs and understandings of information amongst the general public regarding issues and information on the country's state and the world outside its borders.

With such an active effort to control narratives and information sources, many might be surprised by the conversations and building perceptions on North Korea's relationship with studying abroad and international educations. It has become well known by international audiences that the DPRK's leader Kim Jung Un spent four years in Europe attending a Swiss school in Bern (Fifeild, 2019). However, looking beyond merely Kim Jung Un's time studying abroad, more profound questions remain about North Korea's relationship with international education and studying abroad. By diving deeper into the current conversation on what the process for studying abroad is, whom the students are, and the perceived rationale for their travel, we can begin to continue an essential discourse into an aspect of education and focus in North Korea not well explored.

The Process of Studying Internationally: The Who

Photo by: by NK News HQ on 2019-05-21

Like most topics concerning North Korea, the DPRK's involvement with international education and studying abroad for members of its country is not as straightforward of an education process or exploration as a study abroad would be viewed in the more typical formats. While most of the processes and aspects remain challenging to uncover, identifying the implantation of stringent selection processes on ideas of hierarchy and in-depth training and monitoring methods are points of interest.

The DPRK has long emphasized its hierarchal caste system of Songbun, dividing the population into castes of “core”, “wavering”, and “hostile” (Robertson, 2020). With this system playing such a critical role in the societal and cultural operations of the country, it comes as little surprise that studying abroad and international education is perceived to be obtainable for only those with the highest of family statuses (Kim, 2019). North Korean leader Kim JongIl's grandson was the first of the ruling family to openly study abroad by attending a university in Bosnia (Reuters, 2011). However, it is believed that a majority of the Kim family has spent periods studying abroad in secret or other formal positions, similar to the current leader Kim Jung Un time in Europe (North Korea Leadership Watch, 2021). From the Kim family themselves to the kids of governmental officials with proven academic achievement, the selection of students studying abroad seems to represent only a minuscule proportion of North Korea. However, the process remains one of complicated surveillance and control, even for the limited students who can meet the strict selection requirements. Students are constantly under surveillance by The State Security Department, and in many cases, at least one family member is required to stay in North Korea to ensure their return (Kim, 2019).

Gains From Sending Students Abroad: The Why

Photo by KCNA via. NK News

The question that remains is why would a government that has spent so much of their resources and time controlling information given to their population choose to participate in something that puts such tight control of information in jeopardy. However, if looked at from not the perception of information control, but one for more significant information gathering and drive to access power, it begins to make more sense. Arguably, the importance and value lies in the significant advancements and opportunities these trips abroad bring not for the individual but the DPRK's advancement.

Most notably, in the 1990s, the critical leading figure of NK nuclear development nuclear physicist Seo Sang-guk (서상국), was one of the scientists North Korea sent over to the Soviet Union to learn about weapons development (KBS World, 2020). With the immense benefits, the DPRK was able to gain from Seo Sang-guk's time in the Soviet Union, the value of international education is obviously desirable and recognized by the government. With time and destinations across the globe, there are multiple possible areas of development in North Korea that have been and can be possibly directly influenced by their use of international education in agriculture, computer sciences, or weapons development. Understanding the possibilities for the advancements that come with sending strictly monitored and selected students abroad makes the statements by DPRK leader Kim Jong-un in 2020 that these students are "the backbone of our party's efforts to cultivate talent" exceptionally more evident. (Ha, 2020).

Education Repurposed?

Photo by: Cancillería Argentina Via. NK News (April 28, 2017) | The U.N. Security Council

However, in recent times, the role of North Korean students abroad has become even more clouded and situated for an evolving role. Working visas and scientific cooperation with nations and the DPRK have been strictly prohibited and restricted under the United Nations direct intervention with UN Resolution 2397 (2017) and 2321 (2016) to dry up revenue sources used for weapons, technology, and nuclear development in the DPRK (UN Security Council, 2018). With this blocking of North Korean workers, loopholes and workarounds situated in utilizing other forms of visa like "trainee" and student visa are perceived to be operating in China and possibly Russia (Kang, 2020).

With the already recognized benefits from sending students abroad and the growing utilization of student and trainee visas to work around the UN, the international education of North Koreans holds a strong possibility for growth and a range of opportunities. While for most of the population, the DPRK continues its active effort to keep them heavily reliant on information derived primarily from them, the DPRK still sees the possibilities for growth and achievement through controlled and monitored outside means. Hopefully, we can continue discussing and watching how international education is used and develops in the near future as a tool for growth and sanction loophole abuse.

*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


Works Cited:

Cathcart, Adam, Steven Denney, and Christopher Green. "How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korea's Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-Un Era." The Review of Korean Studies 17, no. 2 (2014): 145–78.

Fifield, Anna. "Kim Jong Un's Undercover Adolescent Years in Switzerland." POLITICO Magazine, June 12, 2019.

Ha, Yoon Ah. "N. Korea Lifts Ban on Students Returning to China for Study." Daily NK, April 15, 2020.

Kang, Tae-jun. "How North Korea Uses 'Students' and 'Trainees' Overseas to Bypass UN Sanctions ." – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat, January 4, 2020.

KBS World. "North Korean Students Studying Abroad." North Korean Students Studying Abroad l, June 2, 2020.

Kim, Yoo-sung. "Studying Abroad with Your Family Held Hostage: NK News." NK News - North Korea News, December 27, 2019.

King, Robert R. “North Koreans Want External Information, but Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access.” North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access | Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 28, 2021.

North Korea Leadership Watch. “Kim Family.” North Korea leadership watch. Accessed December 1, 2021.

Reuters. "N.Korean Leader's Grandson Starts School in Bosnia." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, October 14, 2011.

Robertson, Phil. “North Korea's Caste System.” Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020.

UN Security Council. "UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea." UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea | Arms Control Association, 2018.


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