The Moneytocracy of North Korean Higher Education

Bribery, corruption and overweening power are ubiquitous in many areas of North Korean society, and today’s universities are no different. Instead of cultivating the ability of outstanding individuals, simple materialism rules supreme, teaching that money is the solution to every problem.

Like almost everyone in North Korea outside the elite, the lives of university students changed considerably in the days of the “March of Tribulation.”

Until the early 1990s, the idea of a capable applicant being unable to pursue post-secondary education due to financial difficulties was unheard of. In those days, the regime offered scholarships of 15 won (specialized departments 25 won) to university students. Since the currency swap in 1992, the size of scholarships increased to 50 won, and after the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure in 2002, they increased again to 900 won.

But the range of recipients decreased markedly. After the ‘March of Tribulation’ in the mid-1990s, scholarships were only offered to those students in central universities like Kim Il Sung University. Students in regional universities had no chance of receiving fiscal assistance.

Before the “March of Tribulation,” students took North Korea’s university entrance exam and successful applicants were selected based on their grades, as they are in most developed, equitable countries. However, as the economic situation worsened in the mid-1990s, those with the money or “background” began to be selected at the expense of better, but poorer, applicants.

Then, after the year 2000, the amount of bribery required began to depend upon a student’s academic record. For example, those students with a much lower score compared to the pass mark who wish to attend average universities have to pay a bribe of $500~600. For leading universities like Kim Il Sung University or Pyongyang School of Commerce, students have to pay between $2000~3000.

Needless to say, students from poor families could not and cannot afford the degree of support required by universities, and so most have to stop their education.

Therefore, since the “March of Tribulation,” students from poor families have lost the chance to attend university. In comparison, students from rich and powerful families attend just so as to secure a cushy job later on, and their school lives are naturally very comfortable. Universities are solely oriented around those with money.

Of course, costs do not stop with admission bribes. In North Korean universities, a quarter of the calendar year is spent on mobilization for public works, marketed as obtaining real-life experience. In such cases, students are mobilized against their wishes. However, those from a wealthy family can avoid such activities by submitting goods or funding to their university.

Regarding spring work in the fields, for example, Mr. Kim (22), who attended Hamheung University of Mathematics until 2007, recently explained to The Daily NK, “Wealthy families submit the necessary funds or goods to the university every year to be exempted from mobilization. In the case of the 2007 farm village support battle, those students who submitted a carton of good quality cigarettes just rested at home.”

Some university students enroll in the military during their studies; however, those with money who wish to join the Party can just buy their way in, and also reduce the period of their military service, with a one million won bribe.

Also, during their university lives, students are duty-bound to take part in 6-months of Local Reserve Force activities. However, if a student offers up $300, he or she can simply rest without interference for the whole time.

That this materialism is even prevalent in public education causes the offspring of wealthy families to believe in the power of money and only money. Skill isn’t cultivated, it is bought, and needless to say the performance of North Korean universities is in a downward spiral as a result.