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Teachers in North Korea



South Korea celebrated ‘Teachers’ Day’ on May 15. On this day, students express their gratitude for their teachers’ care and commitment to their education by singing the ‘Teachers’ Day song’ and giving them carnations and other gifts. Is there such a day in North Korea? What’s the social status of educators there? Today, we learn more about this with Professor Jeong Eun-chan of the Institute of Unification Education. 

There is no official Teachers’ Day in North Korea. Instead, ‘Education Day’ is celebrated every year on September 5th

The day was created to mark Kim Il-sung’s 1977 publication of his “Theses on Socialist Education. On paper, it is a holiday celebrated by education workers together with the students. So on September 5, students are able to participate in sporting events, informative sessions on the day or commemorative events. 

North Korea considers the day a special day for both teachers and students, founded in order to improve the teachers’ educational skills, while helping the students study harder. That’s the meaning of ‘Education Day.’ 

North Korea celebrates ‘Education Day,’ which is similar to the South’s ‘Teachers’ Day,’ but the origins and the characteristics differ. While South Korea’s ‘Teachers’ Day’ is designed for pupils to express gratitude to their teachers, North Korea’s ‘Education Day’ is a day to reflect on state education policies and guidance received from the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung. 

So on this day, North Korean teachers strive to improve the quality of education, while students renew a determination to study hard through their participation in competitions or commemorative events. Meanwhile, how does one become a teacher in North Korea?  

There isn’t a teacher certification examination in North Korea. Once graduating middle school, an exam is administered similar to the South’s scholastic ability test, to assess whether or not the test-taker can pursue higher education. After the exam, students are sorted according to their provinces, cities and counties, and those who apply may enter the university of their choice in the order of their resulting grades. 

To become a primary school teacher, one must attend a 3-year teachers’ training college, of which there are several in the country. To become a middle school teacher, one must complete a 4.5~5-year-long program at a university of education. After that, the teachers are dispatched by the government, without a teacher certification exam. 

The education system in South Korea is divided into 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of middle school, and 3 in high school. In North Korea, the system looks a little different. Typical students go through 5 years of primary school, 3 years of a lower-level middle school and then spend 3 years in high-level middle school, for a total of 11 years. 

To become a primary or middle school teacher, one must complete a 3 or 4 year long respective college-level training program. As middle school teachers must each have a specialty, their university program is divided into subject majors, such as the history, literature, physical education, and others.

One thing that’s peculiar about teachers in North Korea is that teachers are assigned to a particular graduating class when that class enters the school, and stays with them until those same students graduate. 

There are pros and cons to this system. On a positive note, the teachers are able to pay closer attention to each student, understand their household circumstances, and find out whether or not a student has a special talent. The bond between the teacher and the students become strong as well. But on the other hand, depending on the teacher’s personality, if a student ends up on a teacher’s bad side, they could suffer for years. Also, teachers are tasked to write an evaluation report on the students, which influences the students’ future career directions. The fact that the evaluation of the students’ aptitude may be impacted by the teacher’s subjective perspectives could also be considered a negative aspect. 

North Korean students learn from the same teacher for 5 years in primary school, and for 6 years in middle school. Through this system, teachers are able to assess each and every student closely, and grow close to them personally as well. Stories of ill-behaved or poor performing students correcting themselves and getting good grades thanks to their teachers’ devotion and care are quite common.

However, as the evaluation of the teacher in charge is considered absolute, stories of parents bribing the teachers is also fairly common. In particular, whether or not a particular student has the opportunity to continue to attend university is highly dependent on what their teacher thinks of them. As a result, students and parents fiercely compete to get on the teacher’s good side with a range of extravagant gifts.

Some teachers even blatantly demand gifts or payoffs, severely damaging the integrity of the education system.

After reforms introduced in 2002, a middle school teacher earns between 3,000 and 4,000 won per month. By black market exchange rate standards, teachers earn less than a dollar per month. 

To put this into perspective the North Korean government promises a kilogram of rice at a price-controlled 45 won. But in reality, the state lacks the ability to distribute or regulate prices sufficiently and thoroughly. These days, 1kg of rice costs about 4,500~5,000 won at private markets. In other words, a teacher cannot even buy a kilogram of rice with a month’s pay. So it shows that teachers cannot make ends meet unless they find other ways to make money.

When the severe economic contraction of the 1990s essentially destroyed North Korea’s central distribution system, teachers, along with most everyone in the country, had to find other ways to put food on the table. Many quit teaching to become merchants, and some exceptionally talented teachers have turned to private tutoring – all because they can’t buy enough food with their official salaries. 

Meager salaries aside, teachers are highly respected in North Korea, and are referred to as “professional revolutionaries.” 

North Koreans refer to teachers as “professional revolutionaries.” This is because people believe education of the younger generation will define the country’s future. Teaching is a sought after profession because of the higher social status it affords. Due to current difficulties faced by North Korea however, this prestige does not translate as well into food on the table as it once did. Regardless, it’s safe to say that North Korean educators still enjoy pride and respect. 

Despite the hardships, there are still many teachers who stand in front of the class with pride and a sense of responsibility. Students and parents also rely on the teachers. However, honor and sense of duty can only go so far. 

No one can deny the importance of educators, who are largely responsible for shaping our children’s future. Teachers in North Korea may be respected, but the poor salaries and inadequate conditions seem to make it difficult for them to provide proper education, and opens the door to corruption and favoritism.

Experts warn that education in North Korea will continue to deteriorate the longer international sanctions are in place. Thus, we hope a diplomatic breakthrough in the near future will occur, resulting in better education for all North Korean children.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the cosmetics industry in North Korea.

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