The Illusion of “Free” Education in North Korea

In May, 1990, Kim Jong Il was appointed First Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, and in December of the following year became the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army. Through this process, Kim grasped supreme command of the Military and the Workers’ Party, and secured the foundations of his power.

At that time, Kim Il Sung was the titular head of state and National Defense Commission Chairman, but had already become a symbolic figure. The leadership was falling gently into Kim Jong Il’s hands.

While Kim was moving to secure his power, the economy was moving into a phase of rapid deterioration. As the Warsaw Pact was dismantled in 1991 following the collapse of the Eastern European communist bloc, North Korea’s international aid and trade took a hammering.

These national financial crises seriously affected education.

▲ The nominally gratis education system

In 1977, North Korea launched an 11-year compulsory education system, and poured flattery on itself as an “education state.”

Kim Il Sung called children national treasures and made frequent onsite inspections at educational facilities. Every New Year’s Day he watched a special children’s performance.

However, Kim Jong Il did not have nearly as much interest in education as his father. When he was a candidate to succeed, he accompanied his father to inspections at schools, but after Kim Il Sung’s death he stopped doing so.

Instead, Kim Jong Il consider students just supplementary workers for farm-support activities in spring and fall, and as targets for exploitation.

This is all about the campaign, “Do good things.” The most popular “good things” are raising rabbits and providing the People’s Army with aid. If students don’t have rabbits, the schools take their money instead.

People in South Korea tend to think that the time when North Korea’s free education system started collapsing was after the famine, but in reality it was the 1990s. As state investment in education was reduced, schools began operating autonomously, depending on their students in many ways.

The first example of the need to “do good things” was providing coal in the early 1990s.

During the Kim Il Sung period, coal had been provided for schools first, before other facilities, but since his death, education facilities have been largely excluded from provision.

It is impossible for schools to solve their heating problems without state support during the winter, but they do their best by forcing students to give firewood, coal or money.

Most parents would prefer to educate their kids by paying a certain fee, rather than providing such things in the name of doing “a good thing.”

The list of educational hardships is almost endless. Further examples include;

– Nowadays, schools have problems providing students with text books, which were free in the past, so students have to use their seniors’ text books. Excluding Pyongyang, less than 50% of students get new, free text books every year.

– Every time desks, chairs, school roofs, fences and others facilities are repaired, students have to pay for it.

– In universities and senior schools, students have to give a certain degree of bribe like firewood, gasoline, alcohol, or money in order to take exams and get credits, too.