North Korea faces declining birth rates and student numbers

North Korean children play on a playground in Namyang, North Hamgyong Province in this photo taken in July 2018. Image: Daily NK

As the birth rate in North Korea continues to decline, some elementary schools in the country are merging with middle schools in the rural, coastal, island, mining and mountainous areas. This is due to a drastic decline in elementary school enrollments and because teachers generally avoid working in rural areas. In many cases, elementary school students have to be sent to middle schools instead.

“Even just 10 years ago, elementary and middle schools were separate from each other and had a set number of students each, but now elementary schools are merging with middle schools,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on January 31.

Some areas of the country have teachers taking on both elementary and middle school curricula, such as in Ryanggang Province’s Samsu County, Posong-ri.

“There are only 15-20 students in one particular elementary school in Samsu County,” the source continued. “People now are generally content with having one child, but the environment for raising kids here is not great, so it’s likely that many more will choose not to have kids in the future.”

North Korea’s birth rate continues to drop. According to Statistics Korea’s “2018 Major North Korean Statistical Indicators,” the country had a combined birth rate of only 1.89 from 2015 to 2020 (the average number of children expected to be born per woman of child-bearing age).

North Korea had a combined birth rate that exceeded 2 from around 1975 to 1980, but then from 2005 to 2010 fell to 1.99 from 2005-2010 and 1.95 from 2010 to 2015.

The fall in the number of students due to the declining birth rate has become a major social issue and parallels the country’s existing education-related problems, including instances where teachers are unable to work.

“The severely hot weather last year meant that many teachers didn’t receive their food rations and are still unable to go to work,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province. “The state had traditionally made herculean efforts to provide rations to teachers each year, but now the state doesn’t have the resources to provide them.”

Daily NK, citing North Korean sources, reported in November last year that workers in the public sector were gradually unable to attend work. Sources reported that the halt of rations from the Central Party along with the poor food situation meant that public sector workers have to take care of their own livelihoods to survive.

The average monthly wage for a North Korean teacher is 2,500-3,000 KPW, which at current market exchange rates makes means they earn less than half a dollar in official wages per month.

In the past, teachers would receive bribes from students to survive, but now that student numbers are declining, bribes are increasingly hard to come by. Some teachers have reportedly just stopped coming to work and are trying to earn money through private business activities, including tutoring.

A separate source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK that the vacation periods for some schools located in Ryanggang Province’s Samsu, Kapsan and Samjiyon counties have been increased by an extra month. This, she said, is due to the fact that temperatures in classrooms have fallen to 25 degrees below zero (Celsius) and an absence of wood for heating. The schools have thus closed because the conditions are not acceptable for students to learn in.

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