Behind the only known student uprising in North Korea

Ethnic Chinese friendship bridge
The Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge / Image: Daily NK

Ethnic Chinese (also called hwagyo, or “overseas Chinese”) hold a unique place in North Korean society. This is due largely in part to North Korea’s refusal to classify them as anything more than residents, rather than citizens, of the country.

Over time, the ethnic Chinese minority has gradually become a class of merchants in North Korea. While they are restricted membership in North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea, and face discrimination, their Chinese nationality privileges them to go back and forth between China without a problem. This has enabled them to create a robust cross-border trading network, and as a result ethnic Chinese often live better lives than most ordinary North Koreans. 

Obtaining their privileged place in North Korea wasn’t without struggle, however. To better understand this, let’s take a look at a student uprising that happened in 1966.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution

In April 1955, a relatively large middle school for ethnic Chinese students was established in Pyongyang. The North Korean government changed the official language for the school from Chinese to Korean in 1963, but it continued to educate students until 1966 without any major difficulties. 

Problems first started to present themselves in 1966 when news of Mao’s Chinese Cultural Revolution made its way into North Korea. Ethnic Chinese students were easily influenced by this movement, and it triggered them to study Mao’s “Little Red Book” and anthologies of his teachings. In fact, some of the more zealous students were even reported to have visited the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang to get more books.

On May 15 of the same year, a group of ethnic Chinese students went on a school trip to hike up Mt. Yong-ak in Pyongyang. During the hike, the upper-classmen waved a Chinese flag while shouting “Long live the Communist Party!”, “Glory to Chairman Mao!”, and sang a popular Chinese revolutionary song “Sailing the Seas depends on the Helmsman.”

The party cadre in charge of the students, a man named Kim Young-sub, deemed this type of behavior to be unacceptable. Kim attempted to take away the student’s flag and ordered them to stop singing, but to no avail. The students rebuked the teacher, arguing that a North Korean had no right to give orders to Chinese citizens.

One month later in June, the ethnic Chinese students created a huge poster board outlining the contents of Mao’s Little Red Book, and established a club dedicated to the study of his teachings. On August 18, the students even traveled to Tienanmen Square in Beijing to hear one of Mao’s speeches.

North Korean officials take action 

North Korea authorities decided to take action against the students. On August 22, 1966, Ri Um-sun, the school’s principal, and the first-vice chairman of the Pyongyang people’s committee held a meeting with the parents of the ethnic Chinese students.

At the meeting, the first vice chairman emphasized that foreigners have the right to learn the political teachings of their homeland. He further stated that the school celebrated not only both the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Republic of China, but also that students were given the opportunity to learn about Mao’s teachings in the classroom. 

The first vice chairman promised that if there continued to be problems, the North Korean government would discuss the situation with the Chinese government and the North Korean-Ethnic Chinese Association to find an amicable solution for all parties involved.

Ethnic Chinese face dark period

Unfortunately, the negotiations did not go as planned. The very next day the ethnic Chinese students banded together and attacked Kim Young-sub’s office at the school. 

This incident is most likely the only student uprising to have ever happened in North Korea. 

Unable to sit idly by any longer, the North Korean authorities decided to stop providing material assistance to the school and recalled all of the North Korean teachers who had been assigned to teach there.

The school was left to fend for itself. Female students took over managing the kitchen and the male students tended to the livestock, but despite their best efforts a one-month long break was announced at the school on September 21. On October 2, the break was extended indefinitely, and the ethnic Chinese students were essentially told to transfer to other schools. Finally, on October 25, 1966, the school was officially closed down.  

Similar incidents resulted in closures of schools in Kanggye (Jagang province), Chongjin (North Pyongan Province), and Sinuiju (North Hamgyong Province).

These incidents led to a dramatic and dark shift in policy towards ethnic Chinese by the North Korean government. It was decided that ethnic Chinese were still entitled to receive grain distributions, but were no longer eligible for food rations or other basic necessities.  

Ethnic Chinese in North Korea were discriminated in this way until China’s First Premier Zhou Enlai visited North Korea in 1970. His visit prompted the restoration of most of the rights of the ethnic Chinese and the reopening of special Chinese schools.

*Translated by Brian Boyle

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