When North Korean official media discuss the country’s education problems you don’t have to read or listen for long before realizing that their idea of education is – shall we say? – special.

Thus it is with a new article, distributed on the state-run website Urimzokuri, datelined Pyongyang, October 20, and credited to the official Korean Central News Agency. “There took place an enlarged plenary meeting of the Cabinet of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” it says. “Attending were” blah blah blah and blah blah blah.

The meeting focused on “thoroughly implementing the tasks set forth by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in his work ‘Teachers Should Fulfill Their Duty as Career Revolutionaries in Implementing the Party’s Policy on Bringing About a Radical Turn in Education.'”

The article about the meeting recounts one quick substantive reference that actually – if perhaps unintentionally – gets to the heart of a real problem: criticism of unnamed officials who are “indifferent to providing working and living conditions of teachers.” But that’s the end of the practical stuff. As the article goes on to note:

“The meeting stressed the need to unconditionally fulfill the instructions of President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il without an inch of deflection, regarding it as the primary task to defend and glorify their leadership exploits.” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are, of course, two mummified dead rulers, grandfather and father of current ruler Kim Jong Un. Every word they ever uttered still goes.

Fortunately for anyone interested in the real issues, starting with that vague reference to teachers’ working and living conditions, details can be found in a new report by the Committee on North Korean Human Rights, a Washington-based NGO.

One thing that the NKHR report establishes is that, since the famine of the mid-1990s, teachers themselves have been so poor that they have found it necessary to accept bribes, routinely, from well-off parents.

You want your kid to sit near the classroom stove so she won’t get her fingers frostbitten? Pay up. You want your kid to have a textbook? Pay up.

Discussed in a recent Asia Times article that focused on food-related problems left over from the famine, the report, entitled Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Korean Children 1990-2018, also includes a chapter on educational problems.

“The public education system functioned efficiently until the mid-1990s, with free school uniforms and textbooks,” says the report, which combines new interviews – often with migrants to other countries who were asked to recall their North Korea school days – with findings from various earlier reports by UNICEF and other organizations.

“As was the case with other sectors in North Korea, the ‘Arduous March'” – that’s the regime’s catchy, stiff-upper-lip name for the famine period – “had a disastrous impact” on education, it says.

Findings:

Teachers “often favored the brightest and wealthiest students, prioritizing them to receive new textbooks at no cost.” Lack of access to course materials negatively impacted students’ performance, “particularly if they were of low socioeconomic status.”

“The kids who didn’t get the books had a hard time. They probably did their homework at school before they went home. They would read the textbook together.”

Items necessary to maintain an appropriate classroom environment – such as fuel, desks and chalk – were also in short supply. Teachers required students to supply these materials, often favoring those who could bring more.

“It was extremely cold in the winter. Our feet and hands were aching due to the chill weather. I had a hard time managing the cold. When it was freezing outside, I would not go to school.”

Respondents also discussed how those students who did not bring enough supplies to school were forced to pay. Those students who were unable to pay could not participate in educational activities.

“The heating was done with coal or wood. We had to get wood but in elementary school we were too young to do the work, so we just paid for it. We burned those and left-over inedible parts of the corn – burn that too. The seats were always fixed; you had your spot. People who got the warm seats always sat there. Others who got the window seats didn’t like it, so they skipped school. In middle school, we would take food and wood to school by hand wagon.… We would do that for days. If you couldn’t participate, you had to pay money.”

Compulsory labor

“The Socialist Labor Law of North Korea prohibits children under the age of 16 from working,” the new report notes. However, these children constitute a large portion of the country’s labor force. In addition to integrating labor into the education system, children also work on public agricultural and construction projects. Students serve as an imperative supplementary workforce; their labor was perceived as ‘an extension of school work.’ Students were forced to work in the rice fields and on corn farms, performing a variety of tasks including weeding, picking up stones and harvesting.

Teachers often made children collect firewood and herbs, and also care for rabbits and other small animals to earn money for the operation of their schools. After the Arduous March, the Public Distribution System [food rationing] was discontinued in the marginalized northeastern regions of the country, including North Hamgyong province. Thus, students were often mobilized to generate profits for their teachers, who were also facing economic difficulties.

“There was a farm where we planted cabbage and radishes, but we didn’t get any products. Our teachers received rations from this farm. All students were mobilized to work in the farm. The work was quite intense. If you were working loosely, the teachers cursed us out.”

In the poorest regions of North Korea, some teachers did not receive any salary at all.

“Students worked to help the farms, so the teachers got many sponsors from the farms. There was no monthly wage to the teachers. Teachers harvested corn based on the students’ labor, such as hanging corn and cleaning the places once or twice per week during the busy farming season.”

The most common complaint, the report says, “was the strenuous nature of the work, particularly during the summer months. Respondents also commonly described how the nature and intensity of their work assignments changed with the seasons as well as their education level.”

“At school, we had classes in the morning and labored from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. We were mobilized to assist farmers in the fields, to plant corn, and transplant rice seedlings with a hoe. In order to plaster walls, we were mobilized to dig mud and transport it by carrying a basin on our heads. We were put to work to the extent that we didn’t die…. We went to school for six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, and had Sunday off. No labor was assigned during exam weeks. In a typical week, we were forced to do three days of labor on average. In elementary school, students attended class in the morning and were mobilized to assist farmers in the fields in the afternoons.”

These interviews “suggest widespread inequality in terms of school labor, which is similar to the inequality with respect to the submission of school supplies,” the report says.

“Those students who were better off offered bribes to teachers and were subsequently exempt from work assignments. Students could skip the labor activity only by paying the class or bribing the teacher…. During long-term mobilization, the more affluent students accompanied their classmates to the farms, but were not required to work. So from 3:00 p.m., we went to the farms and did farming activities until the sun set. We went to weed during the summer, we had a very hard time.… We also harvested corn in the fall. We also harvested rice in fall, but I didn’t want to do it. So at our school, there was a music and art club and the rich kids would just learn music and art instead of being forced to work.… Poor kids could not join the club activities because they cost money, so they just went to the work sites.”

Students “had to supply their own food during long-term mobilization. However, some did not have the means to do so. In these instances, wealthier students would purchase food for the other students in exchange for being exempt from their work duties.”

“When we went to the farm work rally, we didn’t bring rice, but we had to bring our own snacks. Many children could not even bring those snacks. And though the farms gave us cornmeal, the amount was not sufficient. So the teachers told rich students to provide food instead of going to the work rally. In my case, I submitted a month’s supply of corn and didn’t go to the work rally. I received formal permission to not attend the work rally.”

The good news

Well, at least the regime is sort of addressing the problem, focusing on trying to improve the quality of teachers.

State news media reported in September on a determination by Kim Jong Un that his country’s education system lagged “far behind” global trends and the ruling party’s plans. Teachers and government officials were instructed then to fix the problem.

Kim included his comments in that work mentioned earlier: “Teachers Should Fulfill Their Duty as Career Revolutionaries in Implementing the Party’s Policy on Bringing About a Radical Turn in Education.”

Officials of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea had met the previous month to discuss ways to develop the education system, and Kim referred to their deliberations. saying they had set out to “improve the standard of overall education and further expedite the building of a powerful country of socialist education and a talent power.”

Kim complained of a failure to “complete the education system and innovate the contents and methods of the education system in accordance with the principles of socialist pedagogy,” KCNA reported.

He criticized a “lack of interest in education science among education officials and teachers,” complaining of an emphasis on form over content. He called for teacher “re-education,” saying that failure so far to achieve a transition in educational work “is mainly linked to the fact that the quality of teachers is not high.”

“Students who learn from low-quality, ineffectual teachers are likely to become dead wood, and parents don’t want to leave their children to these teachers.” But what to do about teachers who are focused on “complaining about conditions and keeping their position”?

As reported by the specialty Seoul-based news organization NK News, Kim went on and on and on about all that, but the foreign reader can be forgiven for having little idea what he was getting at with his largely vague published pronouncements.

The bad news

Alas, if you look hard enough, there are clues – starting with Kim’s invocation of “socialist pedagogy” – that his educational reform strategy may be no more sound than his economic development strategy.

In both cases he appears to pin large hopes on propaganda to cheerlead the people into restoring what, back in his grandfather’s time in the 1970s, could be seen as a reasonably impressive state sector – but which then, with the exception of the munitions industry, all but died off during the “Arduous March.”

Kim like his father before him seems to want to ignore, for public consumption, the fact that the country would have collapsed were it not for the private sector that has ballooned into increased dominance.

“State-level investment in education should be decisively increased and material conditions necessary for education should be sufficiently provided,” Kim was quoted as saying. Public-sector institutions such as cooperative farms and factories should step up and sponsor schools, he added.

But wait a minute. Isn’t that what the NKHR study tells us has been happening already, with the “sponsors” taking advantage of that huge quantity of free child labor that’s reluctantly performed by would-be scholars? And how did that work out?