University Entrance Across the Peninsula

Today, South Korea’s third grade high school students sit the university entrance exam, a high pressure situation for people living in this country’s education-focused society.

Just like in South Korea and the rest of the world, North Korean students who wish to enter university also have to take an exam. The North Korean system is similar to South Korea’s “nationwide exam-final exam” system of 1969-80, meaning that students must take a nationwide preliminary exam first, then successful candidates may apply to a university deemed suitable based on their nationwide exam grade, before having to pass an entrance exam supervised by that university in order to enter.

North Korea’s nationwide exam is held twice a year according to subject. Usually, senior-middle school graduates apply to sit the nationwide exam in November, just as it is in South Korea.

However, who sits the test is not a choice. The education department of the People’s Committee in each city and district specifies the number of students who may apply for the test per middle school. Approximately 30% of city students and 20% from rural areas are able to go forward to the test.

For each middle school, the universities to which examinees are permitted to apply are also predetermined. In the city, a relatively large number may apply for central universities, which are located in Pyongyang or other big urban centers. However, rural students are usually forced to attend a provincial university. Thus, the discrimination between cities and agricultural villages extends down to university entrance.

Take as an example Osanduk Senior-Middle School in Hoiryeong. If it is allocated 10 places in the university entrance exam, the school selects the school’s top 10 students based on the nationwide exam score and enters them in a university exam preparation course. It does not mean that these 10 students will all enter university; it just means they may apply for university entrance exams.

Senior-middle school students who pass the preliminary examination will take their university entrance test between the end of February and early March. Usually, Kim Il Sung University is first, and then other universities. There is no system of multiple applications or retaking the academic year to improve one’s grades. Students can only take the exam for one university, and if they fail the test, they cannot sit it again. Students who find themselves in that situation have no other way to get into university except on the ‘recommendation’ of, for example, the military.

Discharged soldier, current servicemen and people who have received a recommendation from their factory complex do not have to take the nationwide exam at all. They apply for the individual university entrance exam for each university in July of the previous year, and if they pass the test they attend what is called the ‘preliminary department’ of the university for approximately 6 months. The all-important ‘recommendation’ is handed out by Party officials. Usually, those who receive one have a good family history or have displayed exceptional loyalty to the Party in some way.

◆ North Korea’s university entrance examination, undermined by money and power

Until the 1980s, North Korea suffered severe discrimination based on class, and family status determined every field including Party, military and university entrance. Regardless of how good a prospective student was, if the student had a family history of crime, religion, political activity or defection, he or she could not receive a ‘recommendation’.

Very occasionally, children of low family status were allowed to enter university; however, it was only possible for very gifted students. Even in such cases, they were only allowed to enter general or regional universities; entrance to central universities like Kim Il Sung University or Kim Chaek University of Technology was impossible.

In contrast, children of high-ranking officials, men of national import, pilots or servicemen in submarine units benefitted greatly from their family history. Unless they scored terribly on the entrance exam, it was easy for them to enter university.

However, from the 1990s North Korea entered a chronic economic crisis, and university entrance culture started to change slowly. Now, money and power are more important than family history or ability. Unless one is a student with exceptional ability or some kind of ‘hero’ featured in Rodong Shinmun, most students cannot escape from the shadow of money and power.

The unit which decides the entrance of prospective students is the administrative department of each university. Prior to the university entrance examination, bribery phone calls are made to this department, the Party secretary and dean of a university, or parents deliver bribes directly.

The amount of money which parents spend for their children’s university entrance varies according to the level of the university. For a light industry or medical university in North Pyongan Province, for example, $400~500 is required. An agricultural university or college of education, seen as being one level below, require $200~300 according to established practice.

In the case of elite universities; Kim Il Sung University, Kimchaek University of Technology, Kim Hyong Jik College of Education and Pyongyang Foreign Language University, bribes could easily exceed $1,000. Since children of central and provincial officials, high-ranking military officers and foreign currency earning workers are concentrated in central universities; the bribery is increasing every year.

‘Illegal trade’ between the person in charge of grading the exams and prospective students is also common. Prospective students let the person in charge know their examination number, and their scores are exaggerated during the grading process. Some will inform students of test questions so they can prepare in advance.

Thus it is that, unlike in South Korea, there is no solidarity between students on this day, no cheering squads at the school gates. In North Korea, there is not much left to cheer.