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Talk by Mr. Kim Hyun Sik

[Note: This post was originally written in April 2011 and I hit a wall. I was originally planning on writing on how one's idea about the world changes and not changes, but I don't have a background in neuroscience, psychology and sociology to provide any valuable insight; the whole thing would just turn into a worthless self-exploring stream of consciousness writing by a 20 something y/o female.  Enough of those on the web already, and I just know enough to stop myself from doing it, at my best]

I went to a talk by Mr. Kim Hyun Sik at Harvard on April 21. The official name of the talk was An Inside Look at How The North Korean Regime Maintains Its Power.

I was very interested in this topic because I saw the sharp change in my perspective throughout the years.  I was a loyalist with a naive critical eye until about when I turned 20, and slowly migrated to the zone of dissidents. If early year education  is of the great significance as we think it is,  what does the liberation of my mind imply? A failure of the early year education (in the sense that part of its purpose was implementing a certain ideological framework in the younger generations), rendering it a systemic failure? Or, a stronger than we might think predetermined pseudo-genetic temperament (which led me to continuous exploring and adjusting), implicating a more personal problem/trait?

So I was hoping Mr. Kim would be able to confirm or shed some light on my puzzled mind. Being an “ideological  nomad” himself, he seemed to be someone who went through a similar path with me, like, we wander around between ideologies. The idea is, we wander, we explore, we don’t settle; but we long to settle, we became tired, and it doesn’t seem that we can live off the shackle of an ideology-bound mindset, to some extent.

Oh, doesn’t this sound like bluff.

Well his talk definitely reassured me how North Korean-ish my grade school education, maybe even junior high, was. And how old men from North Korea and China share some interesting traits. He reminded me of my grandfathers. I can get what they are talking about but not where they come from, almost like an ingrained idea in their minds that got reinforced by repeated preaching to other people, without any mental flexibility, the only way they seem to integrate the current situation into their thinking is using it as a contrast to illustrate how much better things are right now, without much on why things are, allegedly,much better now.  Granted that I am drawing the conclusion based on one talk, so it seems to be the right time for me to plug in a disclaimer. Kim Hyun Sik might be awesome. I am just too ignorant.

Before I move on to talk about what Mr. Kim said about North Korean education system and my personal experience, let me take a detour to insert some of his background info. here. Kim Hyun Sik fought in the Korean Civil war and killed some American soldiers. He subsequently majored in Russian in college and graduated top of his class. He then was appointed Professor of Russian in the Pyongyang University of Education (my alma mater‘s counterpart in NK! So happy we went with the French Normale system in school naming ;)), later the Dean of the Department. He claims that he was also selected to be private tutor of Kim Jong Il and was involved in evaluating the academic aptitude of Kim Il Sung’s second wife’s nephew, which was the trial for the new extended compulsory education system in NK (testing whether young children were intellectually developed enough so that they could start the education earlier ). Later he went to Soviet Union to teach Korean (ironically after the Seoul Olympics, when people start to pay attention to the language spoken on this peninsula) , where he defected to the South, and later came to the U.S. He is now a researching professor at George Mason, and apparently his book is being selected as a Nobel Prize contender. There is no English translation yet (only Japanese, which is enjoying a “great readership there”), but you can find a summary of the book in English here .

Mr. Kim didn’t go into details how the education is structured to maintain the ruling power in his talk or his book (summary). His role, to me, seems to be more of a living fossil (a very precious one) rather than someone who is actively providing explanation based on his experience. Him, for some reason, is somewhat objectified, willingly or as a corollary.  Another victim of the western-centered discourse?

Also while he seems to be very much criticizing the situation in NK, he still believes that NK could contribute to the human capital in Korean if a unification ever happened by having young people with the great determination to serve the country. I wonder if the regime is overthrown and everyone is presented with all the opportunities that others have, would they still stick to the one option of serving the country rather than freely opting for some less altruistic goals, such as not serving the country. Statistically this is bound to happen. But anyways.

To sum up, other than an interesting personal story, I didn’t learn much from the talk. You can learn it all from the book summary.

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