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Education in North Korea: The State Is Your Conscience.

June 13, 2018

On February 07, 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council released this 372-page report on the state of human rights in DPRK, also known as North Korea.


On June 12, 2018, I published two posts in which I include extensive excerpts from the UN report on North Korea: The first involves history and background of the DPRK, including rise of the Kim regime; the second includes excerpts of the Commission’s findings on the state of human rights in North Korea.

In this post, I offer UN report excerpts concerning the state of education in North Korea.

All three posts are a few thousand words (the challenge of creating blog posts from documents hundreds of pages long); however, if the American public is to be educated about life in North Korea, I submit that posts such as these (long as they are) are important reads.

Without further delay, let us proceed.

Children are taught to revere and idolize [Supreme Leader] Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un. Plaques with slogans, posters and drawings expressing gratitude to the Supreme Leader are found in kindergartens irrespective of the children’s ability to fully comprehend these messages. In addition to the usual subjects in schools, such as mathematics, science, art and music, an unusually large portion of the school syllabus is dedicated to the instruction about achievements and teachings of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, including the Ten Principles and the DPRK’s official version of its revolutionary history. One former educator in the DPRK suggests that the teachings of ideology based on the writings of and about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in fact “constitutes most of the education” in the DPRK. The contents of these teachings are customized to suit the students’ capacity to understand and then memorize them. If the students do not perform well on the subjects of Kim Il-sung’s philosophy and revolutionary history, they may be punished even if they do extremely well in other subjects. …

education in north korea

North Korean schoolchildren

There are two basic themes central to the North Korean indoctrination programme. One is to instil utmost loyalty and commitment towards the Supreme Leader. The other is to instil hostility and deep hatred towards Japan, the United States of America (USA), and the Republic of Korea (ROK). The latter objective is pursued with such deliberate and systematic efforts that it clearly amounts to advocacy of national hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, and to propaganda for war, in violation of article 20 of the ICCPR.

Children are taught that they should aspire only to emulate Kim Il-sung. For example, those inclined to drawing are encouraged only to draw pictures of the Supreme Leader or make drawings which might have pleased Kim Il-sung. Good drawings are put up in schools. Typically, they either depict the Kim family or they depict children stabbing Japanese or American soldiers with swords or pencils.

One witness stated that as a school student, drawing anything other than images to please Kim Il-sung never occurred to him. He was interested in becoming a great warrior, to become a killer of the enemies, going to the Republic of Korea and dying for the sake of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Children are encouraged to be willing to risk their lives for the values of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, more so than for their own parents. Children are surrounded by patriotic images and slogans projecting Kim Il-sung as a fatherly figure, protecting the nation and providing for its citizens. Such messaging and indoctrination serves not only to create loyalty to the leader from a young age, but effectively works to fracture familial ties as children are expected to display greater respect and commitment towards the Supreme Leader than their own parents.

kim jong-un and children

Kim Jong-Un with schoolchildren

All school subjects are taught in a manner compatible with state ideology. For example, one witness described that, when reference was made to a chemical gas in chemistry lessons, a comparison had to be made between how the two Korean governments would use the gas. According to this rhetoric, while the DPRK aimed at industrial development, ROK would use it for tear gas against protestors discontented with the conditions of their lives. In a 1981 speech, Kim Il-sung had reminded that:

It is important in class education to intensify anti-imperialist education, education against US imperialism and Japanese militarism. They are sworn enemies of the Korean people and the target that must be attacked in the Korean revolution. We must intensify anti-imperialist, anti-US and anti-Japanese education among Party members and the working people so that they fight indomitably against US imperialism and Japanese militarism. We must also educate people to harbour bitter hatred for the landlords, comprador capitalists, and reactionary bureaucrats the anti-popular fascist ruling system of South Korea and to have the spirit to fight them without compromise. …

Children and university students in the DPRK are regularly required to participate in parades, mass rallies and other choreographed performances which serve a political purpose. The largest of these performances is the annual mass gymnastics, today generally referred to as the Mass Games.

The Games feature approximately 100,000 children and young adults in a minutely choreographed display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance. In a lengthy talk delivered to the producers of the Mass Games, Kim Jong-il in 1987 explained that the Mass Games not only aim at fostering a particularly healthy and strong physique in participants, but also a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren. He went on:

The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective. … Since mass gymnastics are creative works [t]he creative workers must present in great depth and breadth throughout their mass gymnastic productions the leader’s greatness, the sagacity of his leadership, his immortal revolutionary achievements and his noble communist virtues. Their works must also show in full the greatness and brilliant achievements of the Party that effects historic changes …

The Mass Games have become a major source of foreign currency revenue for the DPRK. They attract large numbers of tourists, who are often unaware of the human rights violations endured by participating children, who are compelled to participate (unless their physical appearance does not meet the state-determined ideal). Training will often last an entire year, including 4-6 months during which the participants train all day at the expense of their schooling. Training practice is gruelling. Children who do not perfect their performances are subjected to physical punishment and additional evening training.

kim jong-un and children 2

Kim Jong-Un with schoolchildren

A former university sports teacher informed the Commission that he was required to train students for the Mass Games. He said students were forced to train 6-12 hours a day in very harsh conditions. Although most participants were school children and university students, some army personnel also participated. Anyone with any sort of disability was excluded. The witness recalled that many children fainted from fatigue during training. Many also suffered severe injuries.

In testimony before the Commission’s Tokyo Public Hearing, Ms L described how she missed an entire semester of university education because her class was required to practise for 6 months, 10 hours a day, for a short segment of a parade, to be held in the Kim Il-sung Stadium of Pyongyang in the presence of Kim Jong-il. Training was so intense that some participants fainted from exhaustion. Fainting was especially common during summer when students trained in the hot sun, on concrete floor. Practice emphasized perfection. Anyone who made repeated mistakes was made to remain on the training ground until midnight as a punishment. Ms L recalls that her teachers would invoke the example of a boy of 7 or 8 years of age who had practised through the intense pain of an acute appendicitis. He eventually died because he did not receive timely medical care. The dead child was treated as a hero because he had dedicated his entire life for an event in the presence of Kim Jong-il. …

Citizens in the DPRK are constantly exposed to ubiquitous state propaganda. The Propaganda and Agitation Department within the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea is primarily responsible for generating propaganda directives. In a speech to Party Propagandists in 1981, Kim Jong-il stated, “… solid foundations for propaganda and agitation work have been laid under the single guidance of the Party Central Committee.” Kim Jong-Il provided guidance on how to intensify ideological education as well as propaganda and agitation for the construction of the socialist economy. He spoke of verbal agitation, agitation by artists, effective use of visual aids and officials setting personal examples as different forms of agitation that are powerful and influential.

The propaganda units in local administrations, schools, places of work and at various other levels are responsible for reproducing messages determined at the centre. They also put up propaganda materials under the directive of the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. In every province for example, there is an art centre responsible for drawing the portraits of the Supreme Leaders and portraying their accomplishments which are displayed in exhibitions, and hung in the hallways and on the walls of public departments and companies. Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang is reportedly the central level body responsible for producing propaganda paintings, murals, posters, billboards, and monuments revering the Kim family. It has been suggested that it is the largest art factory in the world, employing roughly 4,000 DPRK nationals, including some 1,000 artists.

Exceptionally good drawings by children are put up not only in their own schools but also other schools. There are also designated artists in universities and in the military who draw such propaganda materials for posters and billboards to be put in university halls and premises, and for drawings in textbooks and other publications for teachings in the military academy. …

The people of the DPRK are taught from young to revere the Kim family and to internalize the state ideology as their own thoughts and conscience. …

north korea child in uniform

North Korean child in “mock” military uniform

While around 2 million citizens are said have access to computers, they only have access to an intranet system that contains information filtered and determined by the government. Internet access is restricted to a limited few such as universities or some members of the elite. Computers must be registered with the authorities including those for official organizational use and home computers are not connected to the intranet system. …

Intensive state indoctrination occurs in an environment where the exercise of the right to express facts and opinions critical of the state or its official ideology is not tolerated. … 

A witness related to the Commission how he was discouraged since his youth by his parents from aspiring to become a writer as no one could write freely. In the DPRK, one can only write about matters which put Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and the Workers’ Party of Korea in a good light. Writers who write beyond this remit were liable to be arrested and treated as political criminals.

At the Seoul Public Hearing, Mr Jang Hae-sung told the Commission: “My friends, people who used to be writers … [w]e are never allowed to write our ideas, our thoughts … for example, this writer, he slipped when he was talking to someone else. He was drunk at the time, he slipped and he said that writers are never allowed to write their ideas and just by saying that, he was sent to Yodok, Camp No. 15...” …

As to problems associated with freedom of expression in writing:

The Commission was informed by a witness of a young worker who had hung up a few dozen hand-printed posters in the city of Nampo that called for the overthrow of Kim Jong-il in June 2001. This was considered a major political incident and KPA Security Command, MPS and SSD formed a joint taskforce to investigate the case. Kim Jong-il was notified and he apparently personally issued orders to track down the suspects and persecute them severely. Over the course of 5 months, the security agencies took writing samples from every inhabitant above the age of 10. The man was caught after he confided about his conduct to a friend who was an informant. Despite intense torture, the man did not implicate any co-conspirators and the investigators concluded that he had acted alone. For political reasons, however, the security agencies spread rumours that the man had been corrupted by viewing foreign movies and pornography and eventually agreed to commit the crime as a spy acting on behalf of the USA. Based on a conviction by the Military Supreme Court, the man was executed by hanging. His immediate family and the entire city population were forced to watch. The wife of the victim was forced to immediately divorce him when he was arrested so as to avoid guilt by association. His mother and two sisters were sent to Kwanliso No. 15.

Returning to education, i.e, the “music curriculum”:

One witness recalled memorizing children’s songs such as “Revolutionary Army Game”, as part of the nation’s required music curriculum. Only classical music pieces composed before 1899 could be played, and works by the Russian composer Rachmaninoff for example were off limits because he had migrated to the USA. The purpose of music in the DPRK was to inspire adoration of the leader and the belief that socialism will triumph. Accordingly, only pieces that convey admiration for the Kim family and instil loyalty towards the nation and the Party are allowed. Popular music of the West and ROK is totally banned. A person responsible would be punished if caught for playing music of this genre.

As to discrimination in college admission:

A witness at the Seoul Public Hearing, Ms Kwon Young-hee, described the discrimination that her family confronted because both her parents were originally from South Korea. The family encountered discrimination when they sought to leave Musan in North Hamgyong Province and move to Pyongyang:

I learned about the fact that we were not able to relocate to Pyongyang. By the time we learned about the rejection we were old enough to understand that we were discriminated against, because my elder sister against her wish had to apply to this other college and so my siblings suffered from this kind of discrimination.” …

One former high-level official explained to the Commission that he knew of his songbun (government-determined social) status since he was about 10 years old as there had been a certificate in his family home about his grandfather’s involvement in the Korean War. He was also told by his family not to play or associate with those of a lower status. He grew up believing that a high songbun meant that one was closer to the Kim family.

The lowest songbun was given to, among others, formerly wealthy industrialists, alleged spies, Catholics and Buddhists. In effect, a family’s history even before the establishment of the DPRK pre-determined a citizen’s destiny in the DPRK.

In the past, songbun was the key factor determining the course of every citizen from birth. Higher songbun determined whether a person could gain access to the army (particularly the more elite units), university and the Workers’ Party of Korea—necessary preconditions to any future career in public service. Conversely, those with lower songbun were often assigned to jobs in mining and farming, and their descendants often were excluded from higher education. …

The determination of songbun is recorded in a comprehensive resident registration system with detailed files on all adult citizens and their families. The systematic compilation of these files by security agencies and institutions of the Workers’ Party of Korea is not a transparent process, and determinations cannot be contested. Moreover, official discrimination under the Songbun system is also an intergenerational phenomenon, where an individual’s classification is not only determined by his or her personal conduct, but also by the songbun classifications derived from more than one generation of the person’s extended family. Therefore, a system of perpetual discrimination on the ground of birth, akin to a caste-based system, has emerged in the DPRK. …

Individuals resident registration files follow them throughout their life. If and when that individuals serve in the military, enters university or joins the workforce, their file is sent to the relevant overseeing authority. A continuing assessment of an individuals loyalty to the state would be reflected in the file. At any point when an individuals loyalty “score” appears low, that individual would be criticized harshly, monitored even more closely, and, in the worst cases, sent for training through labor. Low scores can affect applications to enter university or promotions at work. However, individuals are seldom informed of the actual reasons behind an unsuccessful application or lack of advancement at work, even though they can usually infer that the reason is poor songbun.

As to treatment of children and adults with disabilities, the news is mixed but still tainted with the inhumane:

It is believed that, in 1959, the government built 11 special boarding schools for hearing-impaired children and vision-impaired children. There do not appear to be any schools or systems for the educational integration or inclusion of children with intellectual or multiple impairments.

While acknowledging the legal rights of persons with disabilities appears to be a positive step in addressing the human rights concerns of this vulnerable population, reliable information about this population is scant. Witnesses have reported systematic discrimination against people with disabilities, whereby families of babies with disabilities have been banished from Pyongyang and forced to relocate in rural areas where there are no services for them, in addition to generally harsher living conditions. According to a former high-level official interviewed by the Commission, the Ministry of Public Security was responsible for cases of children with disabilities. He said that the public security officers visited families to discourage them from keeping their children with disabilities. If they were residents of Pyongyang and insisted on keeping their children, the families would have to leave the capital. If the family agreed to be separated from the child, however, the child would be taken by the government to a designated location. The family would have to sign documentation to agree never to seek that child again and the name of the child would be deleted from the Family Registration File as if the child with disabilities never existed.

To what extent this policy is still in practice is questionable as there have been recent reports that people with disabilities are permitted to reside in Pyongyang. This may be an indication that this policy may have been abandoned or not pursued as strictly as in the past. …

Nevertheless, Mr Kim Soo-am of the Korea Institute for National Unification explained to the Commission that “there is still a high level of discrimination against people with disabilities. In regions where they get a lot of foreign visitors, they limit the residence of people with disabilities.

According to a recent NGO report, many DPRK nationals who fled the DPRK indicated that infants with disabilities were killed or abandoned. Another research institute based in the ROK reported that human rights violations against persons with disabilities include the segregation and forced sterilization of persons suffering from dwarfism.

There have been disturbing allegations of an island in South Hamgyong Province where gruesome medical testing of biological and chemical weapons has been conducted on persons with disabilities. The Commission has received no first-hand accounts of these allegations. A former high-level official, recounted two occasions when he was working for the Ministry of Public Security when people were arrested and sent to a facility, Hospital 83, where the doctors told him they would be used for medical experiments. Based on the information received, the Commission is not in a position to confirm these allegations. It notes them as subjects for further investigation.

In addition to progress on the legal front, the rights of persons with disabilities have received positive attention on a government policy level. Diplomatic sources note that the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled People has made the International Day of People with Disability a national event. One North Korean athlete participated in the 2012 Paralympics. In its 2009 UPR report, the DPRK noted that the annual day of persons with disabilities “serve[s] as an important occasion in facilitating their integration into society and encouraging the general public to respect the dignity and worth of the persons with disabilities and render them support.” 

nrth korean toddler with machine gun

North Korean toddlers taught to shoot enemies.

Impact of deficient economy and songbun upon education:

In 2012, the Supreme People’s Assembly extended compulsory education to 12 years from 11 years, promised more classrooms and said that teachers would be given priority in the distribution of food and fuel rations, according to the DPRK’s official Korean Central News Agency. Despite the DPRK’s commitment to universal provision of education, access is hindered for some by systemic discrimination. Because of the collapse of the DPRK economy, students are generally required to provide resources to fund teachers and school operations.

Mr Charles Jenkins, who lived in the DPRK for over 39 years, told of goods that his two daughters were asked to bring to school: “[T]he girls were always coming to me saying that school officials had requested a certain amount of supplies from every student’s family. Sometimes they would say their teachers told them they needed to bring in 2 kilograms of brass each by Monday. Or a kilogram of lead. Or a hundred meters of copper wire. They asked for coal, gasoline, even rabbit skins.” These specific requests were in addition to the 60 kilograms of corn that he had to send every month to the school. “That’s 2.2 pounds per daughter every day, even though a student’s ration is only a pound per day, so you can see that someone, somewhere, was skimming more than half of what we sent.” He also noted that his daughters were attending the Foreign Language College, “supposedly a high-class place where the country’s elite were being educated”.

The Commission believes that if these practices prevailed in elite schools, those attending less privileged institutions may be subjected to similar requests to provide subsides that their families may not be able to afford.

In addition, it appears that privileges in school – such as whether a student can be designated head of class – are also determined by songbun. Furthermore, compulsory education does not apply to children sent to political prison camps, where an elementary level of instruction is administered under a different curriculum.

Where discrimination in education becomes most apparent is in the selection process for universities or the opportunity to even take the entrance examination. Numerous testimonies of witnesses interviewed by the Commission reported that those persons with low songbun were not even allowed to take the entrance exam or were not allowed to attend institutions appropriate to their level of academic performance and test scores.

I left off on page 96 of the 372-page report. However, the information in this post is grim.

This is life in North Korea, where education is indoctrination toward unflinching subservience to the Kim autocracy– where freedom of thought is systematically and crushingly trampled, and if it survives and is expressed, even minutely, it is severely punished.

I am American. I can write these things and live.


Kim Jong-Un


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

One Comment
  1. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Glad Trump doesn’t read. He doesn’t need any more ideas.

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