Vacations in N. Korea
For students at some 6,000 elementary schools across South Korea, their summer vacation has already started, or will start this month. Middle and high school students usually enjoy a summer vacation of around 30 days. In today’s installment of Inside North Korea, we’ll learn about when students in North Korea start their summer vacation and how they spend the break from Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education.
In North Korea, the vacation period is not fixed. Even school guidelines do not specify exactly how long vacations last. Vacations start only after schools complete the required days of class, exam, and labor. For elementary school students, the summer vacation lasts for 35 to 40 days starting in late July. They have about 50 days of winter break from around December 20 to mid-February the following year. Vacations for middle school students are shorter, because they are often mobilized for labor campaigns or political events, but they still have to meet the requirements for class days. Typically, they have only one month of summer vacation in August and their winter vacation also lasts for about a month in January or February.
North Korean students, like the ones in South Korea, have both summer and winter breaks. In the North, the vacation period varies, depending on region and school, as students are required to take part in various political events or farm work while school is in session.
Students in Pyongyang, in particular, are mobilized for the annual Arirang Festival, which is a mass gymnastics performance, public rallies or military parades. They must start rehearsing at least six months before these events. Students in farming areas meanwhile, are obliged to work at farms in spring and fall. From third grade, children take classes in the morning and help with farming in the afternoon. From fifth grade, students stay at local farms for more than a month in both spring and autumn to do farm work.
Schools often miss class days due to those mandatory events. To make up for missed school days, they have to shorten the vacation period. Even during vacations, students have a lot of things to do.
During vacations, students usually clean the statues of former leaders or historical sites in their region. When citizens are mobilized for nationwide labor campaigns, like a 70-day campaign or a 200-day campaign, students have to join a propaganda activity or sing in groups on the streets.
Younger students have to fulfill the task of picking wild greens during their summer break, while collecting scrap metal and waste paper during their winter vacation. This activity is called bungong (분공). Each student is required to carry out his or her own bungong.
Under a so-called “Kid Plan” system, young students must collect a certain amount of scrap iron and waste paper, bring them to a local junk dealer in exchange for a receipt and submit the receipt to their school. North Korea started to implement the system back in the 1960s with the purpose of supporting the army. It is still in place today, indicating that North Korea exploits children’s vacations to secure war supplies. In addition, students have to go to school once a week during their vacation to reflect on their public and private lives and to get their school assignments examined.
Despite those various duties, however, vacations are certainly a time for fun. Students can enjoy free time as long as they finish their assignments.
Students enjoy swimming and other water activities during their summer breaks. Since the 2000s, a growing number of students in big cities like Pyongyang, Chongjin and Hamheung are now indulging in video games. Some children from rich families spend their vacations watching DVDs or playing computer games.
Ice skating is a popular activity in winter. In rural areas, students enjoy top-spinning, kite-flying and traditional shuttlecock kicking known as jegichagi (제기차기). In Pyongyang, many students also like to roller skate. It seems vacation activities vary according to region.
Many North Korean students are eager to participate in a camp program during their vacations. Those who have been selected as model students at youth groups are given an opportunity to join the camp program. Away from home, they mingle with their friends, cook meals themselves and enjoy various fun activities, including touring historical sites, swimming, nature walks, sports, recreational activities and writing. It’s like joining the Boy Scouts in South Korea. It is said that North Korean students really look forward to the camp program.
During vacations, students are even able to travel — something they rarely get to do at other times.
Students can go on a trip during their vacation as long as their parents accompany them, as it is difficult for young students to travel alone.
In North Korea, people must obtain a travel certificate when moving between regions, especially to Pyongyang and border areas like Gaeseong. They need to go through a complicated procedure of obtaining a special approval number to receive the certificate. These days, though, it has become easier to get the certificate by bribing officials. Anyway, students can take a trip during their vacation, but only with their parents, and they need a travel certificate. It’s a little different from a vacation scene in South Korea, where students are free to go anywhere with or without their parents.
During vacations, North Korean students may visit their relatives in other regions with their parents after getting a travel certificate. If they fail to obtain the certificate, they are not allowed to take a trip, of course.
Some students from poor families go to private markets or jangmadang during their vacations to help their parents do business there. Some others choose to earn money themselves. Wages for young students are just half of those of adults, and that’s why small private businesses are willing to hire students.
Although many students have to engage in some kind of work during their breaks, they eagerly await their vacations.
North Korean students, just like those in South Korea, can’t wait for their vacation to start. In the North, students often go to school singing in groups, not individually. During vacations, they can get away from the grueling daily routine. Of course, they have to do some group activities even during vacations. Still, they feel a sense of liberation from the compulsory group ritual, relax and hang around with their friends. Without a doubt, vacations are a time for fun and freedom, although freedom is enjoyed in a limited way. It’s little wonder students look forward to their vacations.
Students in North Korea cannot fully enjoy their vacations because they must take part in a number of political events or carry out school assignments. But they still wait impatiently for their vacations to come, as they have more free time during vacations, compared to going to school every day.
Here’s hoping that North Korean students will enjoy more freedom—so much as their South Korean counterparts do—and spend a happy summer break with their family, dreaming of their hopeful future.
(Next week, we’ll talk about holidays in North Korea.)