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Inside North Korea

Graduation, Entrance Ceremonies in N. Korea



South Korea has reported the rapidly increasing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and even deaths linked to the virus, forcing schools here to cancel or delay their graduation or entrance ceremonies. The Education Ministry said last Sunday that it would postpone the first day of the 2020 school year, that is, March 2nd, by one week to March 9th at kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools nationwide. The postponement of the beginning of the academic year makes it difficult for schools to set the date for entrance ceremonies for new students.

Students at universities simply wear their graduate caps and take photos, and that’s it for their graduation ceremony. In this last week of February, major school activities here in South Korea have come to a halt, due to concerns over the spread of the virus.

We cannot help but wonder if schools in North Korea also hold graduation and entrance ceremonies at this time of year. Here’s Kang Mi-jin, a reporter at the online newspaper, Daily NK, with more.

Schools in North Korea hold graduation ceremonies in March as the new academic year starts on April 1st. In the past, the ceremonies were held in August as the first day of the new school year was September 1st. But the nation changed the date to April 1st in 1994 to follow suit in many other countries. Another reason is that the birthday of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung falls on April 15th, which is one of the biggest national holidays in the North. Schools across the country celebrate the occasion in a big way right after the new school year begins.

Unlike in South Korea, graduation ceremonies in North Korea are usually held in a calm atmosphere. That’s because most of the classmates enter as a higher grade in the same school of their regions. So, graduation does not mean a major change. But graduation for high school students has a different meaning. After graduation, they go separate ways—getting jobs or joining the army. That means the 11-year compulsory education is over.

During the graduation ceremony, students gather round at an auditorium or schoolyard to listen to the congratulatory message offered by the school principal or teachers. The representative of the graduating class reads out a letter for younger students, and the representative of the student body also delivers a speech in return. The class president stands on the podium to receive report cards and diplomas on behalf of the graduating class. These scenes are not much different from those in South Korea.

But schools in the North do not publish a yearbook, in which photos of all the graduating students are shown.

I attended the graduation ceremony of my daughter in North Korea and a similar one here in the South as well. It seems to me that graduation ceremonies in the North have been held in a similar mood to those in South Korea in recent years. Before the 2010s, participants simply clapped their hands. But these days, people present graduating students with flower bouquets and many parents are willing to participate in the ceremonies. As North Korean citizens have become better off, the ceremonies are held in a larger, more exciting way. Graduating students in the North take photos with their parents and friends, just like their South Korean counterparts. But it is a shame that there is no yearbook in the North.

There is no particular song dedicated to graduation ceremonies in North Korea, either. So, students sing their favorite songs on the graduation day. Some students sing new versions of old songs that were popular in the 1950s, while students with strong loyalty choose to sing “The song of General Kim Il-sung,” which is used at various other events.

How about the entrance ceremony for new students? The enrollment ceremony for elementary school students on April 1st is considered very important in the North. It is a big event attended by parents and even high officials. Ms. Kang explains why.

During the entrance ceremony for elementary school, the state infuses the young children with strong communist ideas. Officials of central or regional agencies attend the ceremony to perform this important ritual. Students, in general, remember the experience on their first day of school until they graduate, recalling their vow on the day. A first step is crucial in everything. For students, it is the first day of starting their school lives.

That’s why the enrollment ceremony for elementary school students is regarded as a highly important event.

On the first day of the new semester, newly enrolled students are required to do something before they enter the classroom. They must offer flowers to a statue of Kim Il-sung in their schools.

New students have to swear loyalty for five minutes in front of the statue or oil portrait of former leader Kim Jong-il in their schools. The vow to study hard, become good students and serve as a pillar of society. They remember their pledge on the first day of school until they graduate.

Homeroom teachers in elementary, middle and high schools, once designated, continue to take care of their students until they graduate from each school. This is different from South Korea, where homeroom teachers change each year. Even academic advisers at universities stay with their students until graduation.

While schools have their own uniforms in South Korea, students all across North Korea wear the same uniform. Uniforms only differ in elementary, middle, high schools and universities. Students used to receive free school uniforms from the state. But nowadays, uniforms are not entirely free but are provided on the cheap.

If a middle school student in Pyongyang appears in a school in Hyesan in Ryanggnag Province, local residents think the student belongs to that school in Hyesan, as students at all middle schools in North Korea wear the same uniform. They don’t know the student came from Pyongyang unless he or she tells them.

Basically, North Korea stresses collectivism, as individualism may cause the society to split.

If schools have different uniforms, students may argue that their uniforms are better than those of other schools. North Korea believes that this small division of opinion could be detrimental to communalism and that sameness is effective in bringing people together in groups systematically.

In the past, the state provided school uniforms for free in the name of a “gift.” But these days, they are sold at the market at low prices as a result of strong international sanctions that have made the North Korean economy even more strained.

Following this winter month of graduation ceremonies, the new school year begins in the spring month of March in South Korea. Newly enrolled students are thrilled at the thought of their new teachers, new friends and new school items, including uniforms. Although students are unfortunately worried about the new coronavirus for now, their hearts are still filled with hopes and expectations for a new beginning. No doubt, the same is the case in North Korea.

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