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North Korea

Compulsory Education in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-03-01

Korea, Today and Tomorrow


The new school year starts in March in South Korea. Most schools have held non-face-to-face entrance ceremonies in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this year, many schools host conventional, in-person entrance ceremonies, which will likely come to life again. In North Korea, on the other hand, the new school year begins in April. Apart from the start of the school year, how is North Korea’s education different from South Korea’s? 

Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s education system from Kim Young-hee, director of the Public Relation Department at the Korea Hana Foundation. 

Schools in North Korea, just like their South Korean counterparts, have not held school entrance ceremonies properly for years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April last year, schools in the North reportedly held their first such ceremonies in three years. Local media reported about students offering flowers in front of Kim Il-sung statues and their family members congratulating them on the happy occasion. Here’s an interview of an old woman who attended the entrance ceremony of her grandchild. 

I was in tears. My grandchild was provided with everything, from the school uniform to the school bag and other items. I bet there is no such grateful system. I really appreciate it. 

Officially, North Korean citizens do not pay any school fee. That’s why North Korea frequently mentions tuition fees in other countries, including South Korea, and claims that it is difficult to receive education in capitalistic countries. 

Until the early 1990s, it did not cost any money to educate students in North Korea. But when the nation was hit by economic difficulties in the mid-1990s, schools placed a heavy financial burden on parents, although there was still no tuition fee. Many parents complained that it was not free and compulsory education. 

In North Korea, free and compulsory education has served as a major tool to awaken the public to the regime’s supremacy. Since the extreme economic contraction in the 1990s, however, parents have paid not only for textbooks, school supplies and uniforms but even for things needed to operate the schools, including educational materials. 

Children from poor families could not afford to attend school. Some North Korean defectors do not know the Korean alphabet of Hangeul. After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, North Korea staged a literacy campaign to enable every citizen to read and write. But illiterate people began to appear in the country in the 21st century. 

North Korea introduced four-year compulsory primary education in 1956. Two years later, seven years of education, consisting of four-year primary and three-year secondary education, became obligatory. In 1967, compulsory education expanded to nine years, including four-year primary and five-year secondary education. In 1972, North Korean students were required to spend eleven years in school—one year in kindergarten, four years in primary school and six years in secondary school. In 2012, after current leader Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea adopted a law for “universal 12-year compulsory education” at the Supreme People’s Assembly. After going through a preparatory period, the law was put into practice in phases.  

Under the new system, one academic year was added to four-year primary education, while six-year secondary education was divided into three years in lower secondary school and another three years in higher secondary school. The change in North Korea’s compulsory education, the first such reform in 40 years, shaped the education system consisting of kindergarten, primary school, middle school and high school. 

Many countries around the world, including China, run a 12-year education system. North Korea implemented a new 12-year compulsory education system in an apparent move to conform to international standards. Also, it seems to try to improve the level of education by extending the education period. By dividing secondary education into lower secondary schools and higher secondary schools, just like the system in China, the North also appears to intend to cultivate talented students at higher secondary schools. 

North Korea says that various benefits have been provided in line with the new education system. For example, each school has been equipped with new textbooks and the latest educational materials such as beam projectors and TVs. 

As far as North Korea’s education is concerned, it is essential to include subjects related to political ideology for the purpose of regime consolidation. 

I still vividly remember exactly when and where Kim Il-sung was born, the youth movement and anti-Japanese activities he joined and what he did after the Korean War in order to build a socialist country. I remember all these in chronological order. Similarly, North Koreans are taught that Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il was born in a secretive military camp at Mt. Baekdu, how he studied in university and what activities he engaged in the party. They also learn the revolutionary history of Kim Jong-suk, the first wife of Kim Il-sung and the mother of Kim Jong-il. Born in Hoeryong(회령), North Hamgyong Province, she was an anti-Japanese heroine. All the information about the family of the top leader sticks in the minds of North Korean people. 

After the 12-year compulsory education system started, North Korea added a school subject about current leader Kim Jong-un. 

The creation of a new subject titled “Revolutionary Activities of Dear Leader Kim Jong-un” strengthened the personality cult surrounding the family of the top leader in school curricula. 

It is also notable that the 12-year school system reinforced information literacy as well as education about science and technology. 

To provide information technology education in a modern way, schools are equipped with relevant facilities so they can offer various types of classes such as remote learning and e-learning. 

Mathematics and science make up a significant portion of the classes in lower secondary and higher secondary schools, which are equivalent to South Korea’s middle and high schools, respectively. 

I attended high school in North Korea in the 1970s. At the time, schools selected students who were good at math and gave them special education in a separate group. I was good at math and I belonged to the group. 

Now, it seems North Korean schools run many classes dedicated to math. Lower secondary schools spend 578 hours on math instruction for three years, while higher secondary schools, 368 hours. In the current Kim Jong-un era, North Korea has sent many students to the International Mathematical Olympiad. North Korean students have fared pretty well at the math competition, winning gold, silver and bronze medals. It seems the North puts special emphasis on math education, since math comprises the basis of IT education. 

In another education trend in North Korea, the country is strengthening education for gifted children. In fact, education for the gifted started a long time ago, in 1959, when North Korea promulgated a law on the reform of the education system. At the time, education for the gifted was mostly about training students who were talented in art or sports. The North used the talented students as a tool for propaganda aimed at establishing Kim Il-sung’s one-man leadership. 

North Korea began to train gifted students in earnest in the 1980s. Having solidified his upcoming position of power, Kim Jong-il strengthened education of basic science and expanded the scope of education for the gifted to science, moving beyond art. It seems North Korea tried to overcome the economic crisis by cultivating science prodigies. In the 1990s, such education expanded to the IT area. 

Current leader Kim Jong-un has also mentioned the importance of developing science and technology and training outstanding individuals, since he assumed power. 

During the seventh congress of the Workers’ Party, in particular, the leader instructed officials to cultivate talented people who would be able to attain the world level. 

North Korea has been keen on education for the gifted for a long time. Already in kindergarten, teachers discover children who are talented in music or sports and let them receive relevant education from early on. North Korea often airs TV programs about education for talented students. Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, smart children are provided with special education in childcare centers or kindergartens to be trained as IT experts later. There were music or sports prodigies in the past, while math or IT phenoms have appeared now. 

In line with the education trend, the private education fever has swept North Korea, just like in South Korea, with private tutoring emerging in the communist state. According to a North Korean defector who was a school teacher and also a private tutor, many teachers in the North work as private tutors. 

I earned a lot more money as a private tutor than as a teacher. A teacher’s monthly salary was about 5,000 North Korean won, but a private tutor could earn 220-thousand won by teaching one student privately. That means I could earn one million won by teaching five students. 

North Korea has set up schools for the talented in science, foreign languages and art. As a result, it is said that there is a boom in private tutoring for students hoping to enter such schools as well as colleges. 

Booming private education means that public education has waned. My mom never told me to study. From kindergarten to high school, my teachers took care of everything about my education. I had the same home room teacher throughout the four-year primary school period. In the same way, one home room teacher was in charge of me for three whole years in my lower secondary school. The same was true of my higher secondary school. It is easy to imagine that home room teachers knew about their students pretty well. They helped their students advance to higher schools, in consideration of the students’ abilities and aptitudes. 

Now, the situation is different. Students have to get better scores than their classmates to get into better colleges, while many school teachers work as private tutors secretly to earn money. Both demand and supply grow for private tutoring, fanning the private education craze. 

It’s been ten years since the 12-year compulsory education system started in North Korea. Local media say that students’ academic abilities have improved a lot in recent years, attributing the result to the new system that was implemented after Kim Jong-un became the leader. 

North Korean authorities aim to achieve national development by training human resources. But they will likely be able to fulfill that goal when they reform the educational environment and relevant content at the same time. 

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