North Korea is economically, politically, and socially one of the most isolated countries in the world. In 1948, Kim Il-Sung took office as an authoritarian dictator, establishing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and installed a mandatory education system justifying his dictatorial regime.
Article 43 of the North Korean government constitution states “The State shall embody the principles of socialist pedagogy so as to raise rising generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of the new Juche type who are acknowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy”. Through the education system, based on idolization of their dictators, falsification of history, and discriminatory and hateful propaganda, the North Korean government violates its citizens’ human rights and indoctrinates them into monitoring each other and hating foreigners. Additionally, North Korean children are forcibly mobilized into propaganda education and forced labor, neither of which have any practicality.
How does the North Korean education system operate?
Considering the North Korean education system, unlike the international guideline of peace and respect of dignity and diversity of mankind, the article 43 of the North Korean constitution states that “The State shall embody the principles of socialist pedagogy so as to raise the rising generation to be steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for society and the people, to be people of the new Juche type who are acknowledgeable, morally sound and physically healthy”.
In this context, the “Revolution” that North Korea has mentioned means scarifying everything for the sake of country, more precisely the dictatorship regime and becoming loyal to the Kim family.
As the North Korea education system is based on this “revolutionary ideal” to create an “acknowledgeable generation”, all contents taught in schools include the Juche ideology, labor part policies, revolutionary traditions, communist beliefs, revolutionary optimism and more by applying not only militaristic but also the monitoring method to “keep wrongful individuals in check”. Besides, students are forced to labor since they attend the elementary school.
What are North Korean students taught in schools?
- Idolization propaganda
North Korea educates its future generations with the goal of raising them as steadfast revolutionaries who will fight for their society and their countrymen, and also aims to raise them as well-rounded individuals with a communist mindset. In order to achieve this goal, since the 1970s, Kim Il-Sung has demanded absolute obedience from the public through idolization education.
The idolization education is starting from nursery. Although it is not a regularly held class, North Korean nursery teachers teach about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. From elementary and middle schools, the courses, as part of the curriculum, are about the childhoods and revolutionary activities of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and his birth mother, Kim Jong-Suk, all the while emphasizing the greatness of “the 3 Generations of Baekdu Mountain’s Leaders”.
After Kim Jong-Un’s succession as dictator, the revolutionary activities and history of Kim Jong-Un were newly revised so, the middle school curriculum includes “Kim Jong-Un’s Revolutionary Acts” and the high school curriculum includes “Kim Jong-Un’s Revolutionary History”.
Moreover, North Korean university students must take ideology classes, such as “Philosophy of the Juche ideology”, “History of the Revolution” and “Juche Political Economy”, regardless of their individual majors.
Apart from official school curriculum, children are educated by the Children’s Alliance, teenagers by the Kim Il-Sung Socialist Youth Alliance, and so on including various organizations in society from which they also receive the idolization education.
The idolization method can be classified in three steps following:
In North Korea, there is a so-call “self-study” session every day before classes commence where students must spend 15 minutes studying and reading idolization content aloud. One student will bring forth the newspaper or a song and read it for the rest of the class. In the 1st and 2nd grade in elementary school, the homeroom teacher would lead the Self-Study Time, and after 3rd and 4th grade, a boy’s league official, who is responsible for thought monitoring, will lead the session. The objective is to keep learning the Party’s policies and current events. However, with no freedom of the press, the media is merely another form of idolization education. Fundamentally, the Self-Study sessions are directed to fostering loyalty towards the dictatorship.
After Self-Study time, there’s another idolization session called, “Party Policy and Refinement” in which the homeroom teacher would read a story about Kim Il-Sung, and state that they will progress through the day reflecting on that story. Also, students will take 5–10 minutes reading idolization materials about party politics related to Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il.
Not only at school, but every Saturday, a Youth Alliance or Boy’s League guidance officer would continue the political education. If a student incorrectly memorizes the policies during the eras of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un, then that student will be thoroughly reeducated in the era in question.
This sort of refinement plays an important role in that it adds upon the classes and the Self-Study time in having students revere the Great Leader.
To maintain this unrelenting ideological education, schedule the teachers meet their local propaganda officer once a week to keep up to date with party policies.
Political ideology curriculum is pervasive in all aspects of North Korea’s educational curriculum, and it is used strongly as a medium to train “talented revolutionaries with independence and creativity.” If seen in this context, it shows that political ideology education is the most important aspect of North Korea’s idolization education. In “Socialist Education” drafted by the North Korean education party, it explicitly states that the basis for political ideology refinement is Juche ideology.
North Korea’s Juche ideology demands absolute obedience to the North Korean leaders. This is because according to the ideology, only the leader can be the driving force behind carrying the North Korean people throughout history.
“We must overturn imperialism and capitalism, and continue the revolution even after we establish the socialist system. Socialism and communism does not automatically get established through the usurpation of imperialism and capitalism. The longevity of socialism and communism are reached through long-term labor and class struggles.”
The idea that the Supreme Leader must lead generations to the right path of long-lasting revolution is the core revolutionary idea. This makes inevitable the blood succession of the Kim family, and that the Baekdu bloodline (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un) are needed to preserve the legacy of Kim Il-Sung. For this reason, political refinement serves to hone the people’s loyalty; because the citizens’ loyalty towards their leader controls the direction of their revolution.
To this end, idolization propaganda is widespread throughout the educational curriculum. Kim Il-Sung’s revolutionary thought, theories, and achievements are presented throughout the educational curriculum, and society, to inspire idolization of the leaders and mold the population into supporters of the regime.
Additionally, in the revolutionary history classes involving Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, they are exalted as future leaders who have all necessary requirements to be a leader, and states that they have mastered, and will advance, the revolutionary ideals of Kim Il-Sung—as demanded of them by the new century and the revolution.
The subjects Revolutionary Achievements and History of Kim Jong-Sook (Kim Il-Sung’s first wife and the mother of Kim Jong-Il) serve to idolize this female, motherly, figure. However, instead of exalting Kim Jong-Sook’s own achievements, it puts emphasis on her unfailing loyalty toward Kim Il-Sung, proposing an ideal that the people must live by. Additionally, this class subject is specifically used to justify the succession of Kim Jong-Il. Defectors remembered this fact very clearly.
North Korean students are forced to study political thought, and if they do not do their homework in such classes or otherwise fail to correctly memorize the material, they will be subject to harsh physical punishments. This kind of political thought education during their academic years has a big influence on the North Korean people. Because the political education is to be carried from the womb to the grave, many individuals consider its importance to be far greater than it actually is.
Propaganda in others subjects
The idolization method is not only present in political and revolution classes but also in other classes. Even if you’re studying a language, it is limited to content regarding loyalty to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il and social thought. In fact, the first words you learn are the leader’s names. Even in travel essays, rather than focusing on the tourism and historical aspects of a historical landmark, it focuses on praising and revering the life and achievements of Kim Il-Sung and his family. Music mostly involves songs about Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. If one changes the lyrics related to idolization or if the lyrics are neglectfully written, then it’s possible that the student’s parents could be punished in the student’s stead. Whether one’s specialty was physical fitness or music, the objective was always “to please the General.”
Idolization education persists outside classes even in schools’ excursions. For example, in private lessons or vacation periods, students visiting various idolization-themed landmarks in order to affirm the greatness of Kim Il-Sung and his family. The revolutionary historical sites in North Korea are composed of approximately 40 sites related to Kim Il-Sung, approximately 20 sites related to Kim Jong-Il, and a few related to Kim Jong-Sook (Kim Jong-Il’s mother), Kim Hyong-Jik (Kim Il-Sung’s father), and Kim Hyong-Gwon (Kim Il-Sung’s uncle), totaling over 60 historical sites.
Additionally, many symbols of the North Korean leaders are made (statues, badges, portraits, etc.) to affirm their greatness to the people; there are approximately 38,000 statues which all have a significant meaning, just like the previously referenced Sun altar (which is protected day and night).
Furthermore, schools teach children from a young age that the portraits of the leaders are important by having them clean the portraits. Students are expected to clean the portraits with utmost sincerity from elementary school to college. The act of cleaning the portraits is to have the students express absolute loyalty and idolization towards Kim Il-Sung and his family.
In elementary school, when the children are short and cannot reach the portraits, the teachers must lead by example by showing the children how to sincerely clean the portraits and teaching them that they must always keep the portraits clean. Starting from middle school, students take turns cleaning the portraits themselves.
This repetitive idolization practices forces the students to always remember the sacred meanings of the symbols of their leaders. Not only this, but the North Korean government exposes its citizens to daily, continuous propaganda revolving around the government’s ideals and legitimacy.
- Historical distortion
Historical distortion, along with idolization, is part of the indoctrination education system designed to maintain the single-party dictatorship of North Korea. The North Korean government, through distorting history, justifies the regime, idolizes its leaders, and accentuate its claim that it is a great nation.
History is distorted in various ways, including changing modern Korean history, manipulating truths about Kim Il-Sung’s anti-Japanese war efforts, glorifying the Kim family history, as well as intentionally misinterpreting world history.
For example, its interpretation of the General Sherman Incident in 1866 is very different from that of South Korea.
On August 15th of 1866, the incident began as an American armed merchant, marine side-wheel steamer, The General Sherman, approached Pyongyang with the intention to trade. At that time, the Joseon dynasty maintained a strict isolationism policy. Due to such policy, Governor Park Gyu-Su of Pyongan province demanded that The General Sherman leave Pyongyang at once. However, ignoring the warning, The General Sherman approached the Turu Island near Mangyongdae and seized Adjutant-General Yi Hyon-Ik. Enraged Pyongyang citizens started to throw stones at the ship as a protest and The General Sherman responded by firing its guns and cannons into the crowd. As the situation escalated, Park Gyu-Su launched an attack to rescue Yi Hyon-Ik, burning down The General Sherman in the process. All the sailors on board were killed, including those who survived the fire but were beaten to death by the crowd. This incident later led to the Shinmiyangyo, or United States expedition to Korea.
This is the commonly accepted narrative of the General Sherman incident. However, the North Korean version differs greatly. North Korea describes The General Sherman as a Naval warship instead of an armed merchant vessel, implying that U.S. approached Pyongyang with hostility and the intention to invade, thereby fueling anti-American sentiment. Furthermore, such description was intended as a warning against capitalism and imperialism, calling for a defensive attitude towards foreign influences.
Another example can be found from “The Revolutionary Acts of Our Great Leader, Kim Jong-Il” textbook for middle school which states that the Korean War began with a South Korea attack on North Korea and that the North Korea defeated South Korea and the United States forces without any help from China. But in reality, from the world history which is taught worldwide, the Korean War started on the 25th of June 1950 when North Korean tanks crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary with South Korea
- Violent and Hateful Propaganda
The North Korean government upholds the violent and hateful education policy in order to maintain its dictatorship and inspire integral unity. Such efforts are apparent in various conditions. The school curriculum, a militaristic way of education, public executions, visits to the historic museum, rallies, Saeng-hwal-chong-hwa (criticism/self-evaluation sessions), games and comic books, and revolutionary education are only some of the examples. Through these practices, North Korea intends to make enemies outside the society, unify the nation, and try to avoid political insurrection by having the citizens monitor each other.
In the same context as historical distortion, North Korea criticizes capitalism and uses anti-U.S. and anti-Japanese sentiment in order to encourage communist ideology and the social system. For this reason, North Koreans learn the revolutionary history and activities of their leaders in school, which then fosters feelings of hatred toward the U.S. and its allies. For example, there are questions on math exams such as, “How many are left after destroying some of the American tanks?” and lyrics in music classes, such as “Kick the Japanese out of the country”.
Hateful propaganda is found in various activities outside of the regular educational curriculum.
Almost every field day at school has a competition called, “Smash the foreign-nosed Americans to death”. Most students are required to participate, and they’ve done so since a very young age, as elementary school students. Moreover, they casually play violent games under special occasions, and try to lead whoever is on the American team to lose. The purpose of these kinds of violent games is to indoctrinate the children into believing that North Korea is the best country in the world, and to instill anti-American, anti-imperialist sentiment.
Apart from these curriculums, the Saeng-hwal-chong-hwa or group criticism sessions should be mentioned as it is a form of damaging and fear instilling education, that has been handed down since Kim Il-Sung Government, to make the people obey the dictatorship through public self-criticisms and mutual criticisms at schools or working groups so, it makes people monitor and distrust each other and contribute greatly to preventing members of the society from cooperating with each other.
This practice has become so ingrained in their society that citizens view each other with a critical eye even when not in these sessions. Through this environment of constant societal scrutiny, the regime causes its people to experience mistrust, anxiety, and fear while still suffering pressure to promulgate the very behavior monitoring and censorship which keeps them so subjugated. Moreover, there are considerable cases in which weaker students are bullied because of what happens in Saeng-hwal-chong-hwa.
Additionally, group criticism sessions are used to encourage people’s hatred toward the foreign countries. For example, if the first secretary of the Socialist Youth Alliance says, “Now I will begin a discussion.
Submit your agendas about your rage against the class enemy and your resolutions for the future,” the students answer by saying something like, “They have to pay for what they did. I will exact revenge for generations. The United States and Japan are countries that should be extinguished and should not exist.”
Attending Public Executions
Because public executions frequently occur in various locations, people witness them since youth, whether they were forced to or not. These executions, as supported by the defectors’ testimonies, are very violent and serve to warn everyone that there is no tolerance for any form of actions made against the regime. Public executions are conducted to rule North Korea via a reign of terror. There are many moments in which it is mandatory to attend public executions, and if the person attending is a minor, it often becomes a source of lifelong trauma. These scenes of violence, which even elementary school students are forced to watch, are a denial of basic human dignity and humane criminal justice to the people.
To create stronger hatred towards foreign powers and to create internal solidarity, North Korea holds mass rallies. Mass rallies are protests in which crowds gather and make hate speeches such as, “Defeat the U.S. and the puppet government of South Korea.” It is held mostly in holidays, but each class, school, city, province, and central government has a different schedule; all must attend to these rallies.
The violent, hateful propaganda takes place not just in events like Saeng-hwal-chong-hwa or rallies, but also in their daily lives. The North Korean government indoctrinates the youth by providing animated cartoons that infuse hateful ideas along with their school curriculum. Since youth, North Korean children are taught to loathe and disrespect foreign powers and peoples, which is much different from children in other countries who are told to love and respect one another. These ideals even appear in the popular animated shows for the North Korean children.
There are animated cartoons like “Boy General” or “The Squirrel and the Hedgehog” that teach children to hate and exclude capitalist countries at all times, and at the same time, they indoctrinate the children into believing that North Korea is the best country in the world.