After North Korean students took their end-of-term final exams in February, the Ministry of Higher Education reportedly ranked the average test scores of students from thirteen administrative regions, including the country’s provinces, directly-administered city (Pyongyang), and special cities. 

“Students already got their grades back from their February final exams. Then, on Mar. 27, the Ministry of Higher Education made a nationwide announcement that they would rank average test scores in each province, directly-administered city, and special cities,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Apr. 5.

According to the source, the ranking of administrative regions by average test scores was as follows: Pyongyang, Chagang Province, South Hamgyong Province, South Pyongan Province, North Hwanghae Province, North Hamgyong Province, Kaesong, North Pyongan Province, Yanggang Province, Gangwon Province, Nampo, and Rason.

North Korean authorities published the ranking in light of the fact that proctors graded exams for each subject on a five-point scale, but the highest average grade was 1.2 while the lowest was 0.8. These results indicate that students’ educational attainment dropped dramatically in 2020.

“The authorities usually didn’t rank provinces by average end-of-term test scores,” the source explained. “But because the grades were lower than last year, the new head of the Ministry of Higher Education ordered them to calculate and publish the rankings.”

Ri Guk Chol became the new head of the Ministry of Higher Education and the president of Kim Il Sung University during the fourth session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, which opened shortly after the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party early this year. He ordered his staff to rank each province by educational attainment, stating that it was necessary to investigate teachers’ and students’ education levels. 

notebook computers
Students at North Korea’s Pyongyang Elementary School take computer lessons. / Image: Ryukyung

As more students began taking their classes from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ri saw the emergence of educational achievement gaps between provinces and between individual students. Daily NK’s source claims that Ri gave orders to create a ranking of test scores by region to understand the situation better.

In response to Ri’s order, the Ministry of Higher Education submitted an assessment report of nationwide student performance to the Central Committee. Ri reportedly received an “appreciation letter” from the central committee for his timely report on the situation and his submission of a plan to counteract education-related difficulties.

However, the source also reported that North Korean authorities dismissed the education bureau directors responsible for the three lowest-ranked special cities, cities and counties, and fired the principals of schools with the lowest test scores in each region.

The parents of students criticized these measures, however, saying that “low educational attainment was a serious problem even before COVID-19, but the authorities are trying to shift blame by saying that [the poor test scores] happened because of the pandemic,” and that “the principals aren’t to blame, but they are the ones getting punished.”

According to the source, even before teachers visited the homes of students to conduct classes, there were many instances “when students would go to school for class, and the teachers would lecture for about ten minutes before telling students to review on their own. Then, they would leave the classroom to attend to their personal matters.” Based on his account, parents are saying that “it’s nonsense to say that education is poor because of the pandemic when things like this went on for so long.”

The Ministry of Higher Education has proposed a nationwide “digital education planning competition” as one method of responding to this year’s poor educational attainment and improving the education levels of students and teachers. The source reported that “teachers’ universities all over the country are brimming with lesson plan proposals after receiving the notification about the competition.”

In fact, on Mar. 30, Rodong Sinmun reported that “teachers’ colleges from all over the country will participate in the digital lesson planning contest, which will take place soon…The contest will foster competition between teacher training institutions for the development of educational projects and will serve as a meaningful opportunity to develop nationwide education projects in a fast, equitable, and unified manner.”

*Translated by S & J

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to