I have been reading This is Paradise: my North Korean Childhood by Hyok Kang, who was born in 1986, lived through the famine of the 1990s, and escaped to China in 1998. One thing he writes about is the maths exercises from his school textbooks, with their unique subject matter. Exercises like these:
The people's army, after a battle against the armies of the American imperialist dogs and the South Korean puppets, took 15,130 soldiers prisoner. Among them were 1,130 more American bastards than South Korean puppets. How many American dogs and South Korean puppets were there?
The respected Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il had great consideration for children, and built a Palace of Children for them. Yong Chol lives three kilometres from the palace. To get there, he walks at a speed of 80 metres per minute. But after one kilometre he bumps into Chol Su and chats to him for five minutes. Bearing in mind that he had to be on time for his appointment, and that he has just lost five minutes, at what speed does he now have to walk to get there on time?
On a collective field of 1.37 hectares, the harvest totals 1,294.65 tonnes. Before the liberation, only 219.2 tonnes were harvested on the same area. How many more tonnes have the farmers harvested after the liberation?
Tonnages always increase monotonically in tabulations of five-year plans, and after liberations. But North Korea, Hyok Kang shows, is an unliberated Hell whose inhabitants believe, because Great Leader and Dear Leader inform them so, that it is Heaven while every other corner of the Earth is Hell. He explains how, during the famine, you learn to dig into rat warrens and past the places where the rats sleep, so that you can reach the far ends of the tunnels where the rats store their little piles of rice and ears of maize or wheat. You can harpoon the fleeing rats and cook them in a stew; or if squeamish, just cook the rice and maize and wheat. Grasshoppers are delicious fried, while dragonflies taste like pork: you can eat dragonflies raw too, after removing wings and head. But people strip the hillsides bare in search of firewood, the plants die, and the wildlife. The poorest people eat nothing but grass, and as time passes, there are fewer and fewer pupils sitting at the school desks. People generally died, Hyok Kang notes, at night. Because you are, after all, only a ten-year-old boy, you believe that this is normal. And you believe that one and one can be one.
You believe this because Lesson 8 of your arithmetic textbook says so. It describes Dear Leader visiting a nursery school. When the teacher said "One apple plus one apple equals two apples", Dear Leader jumped up and squashed two pieces of Plasticine together into a single lump, proclaiming "No, one plus one equals one!" He also mentioned water, which when mixed together, still makes one. The pupils recognised the rightness of these observations and exclaimed "He's right, there's no doubt about it!"
Hyok Kang also says that in the fourth year of primary school, he learned that, since Great Leader's earliest childhood, there had been no-one to equal him at solving problems:
When a teacher put the question to the class: "There are ten birds on a branch. A hunter kills one of them, how many are left on the branch?" all the children in the class said "nine". Only the future head of State Great Leader Kim Il-Sung replied, "None, because the others would have flown away."
Anywhere else in the world, this would have been a piece of fun from a pop-science book about lateral thinking, on a par with the joke where teacher asks little Bobby how much one would pay for fifty apples at a cent each, and Bobby replies "Nothing, because at that price, they must all be rotten!" Imagine a biographer telling such a story about boy Obama. But here are more maths exercises:
276 of Kim Il-Sung's soldiers are fighting against 577 Japanese. They kill 431. How many are left, and how many soldiers altogether are left on the battlefield, if we know that the losses among our ranks are three times less?
Some Young Pioneers are going to visit a historic site commemorating a battle led by the Great Leader. On the way there, they travel at 92 km/h and on the way back at 54 km/h. If we know that the journey there took three hours, how long will the return journey take?
A little girl, a member of the Young Pioneers, is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. On a secret mission, she carries messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. The wretched Japanese eats two of her apples. How many is she left with?
One wonders what would be taught in a computer-science
class. Spreadsheets would calculate the volume
of red paint needed for the walls of the Palace
of Children, or the number of H-bombs
needed to saturate Seoul. Exercises on
backtracking would ask for the shortest route
needed to transport reactionaries
to the nearest labour camp; or
the shortest sequence of moves that
generates the ideal everybody-totally-loyal-to-the-Party
programs would prove the logical inevitability
of that society. Instead of
Hello World, beginners'
would have to print
Hello Dear Leader.
And because it is a crime to
depict Dear Leader incorrectly, any student
whose program produces faulty output such
Hello Dead Leader or
Segmentation Fault would be shot.