History & Background
Education in North Korea is regarded as a vital area of national concern, shaping the country's future. This notion is more evident in North Korea because it has been transformed into a highly mobilized, state controlled society. To accomplish this transformation, North Korea has developed a very unique educational system.
In North Korea, education plays the vital function of developing people's minds as well as controlling them. The political dimension of the educational system is well-recognized. The universal nursery school education is connected to 11 years of compulsory education that is free of charge. The applied principles of education are officially formulated according to the state's so-called theory of education. Teaching and learning patterns follow these guidelines as stated in the "Thesis of Socialist Education" issued by the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung in 1977. An examination of the school curriculum easily reveals its continuity with the goals of political education.
North Korea is a society that is basically closed to outsiders. Reliable and accurate information is often not available or difficult to acquire, and observation as to actual practices in the schools is almost impossible. Therefore, the characterization and estimation of the educational outcomes can be interpreted as an exercise in speculation or conjecture.
Political, Social, & Cultural Bases: The educational ideology formulated by the Party has been the foundation of the educational policy framework. This framework specifies the official educational objectives and basic policy directions.
Marxist Leninism was the guiding ideology of North Korean education for the first period of the North Korean government's rule. But since the late 1960s, North Korea has begun to take a more independent course of action away from the influence of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. In 1997, the central committee of North Korea's Labor Party, the Chosun Nodong Dang (Chosun Labor Party), adopted "The Thesis on Socialist Education." Since then, this thesis has become the only ideological foundation for North Korean education and the basis of the state's educational principles. The thesis clearly specifies the basic objectives on which an educational system has to focus its efforts: "To transform the next generation to be 'revolutionaries' who fight for the benefits of the Communist Society and its people and to be Communists intellectually and morally and with physical strength" (The Constitution, Article 43).
The Party's ideological doctrine and "Juche Doctrine" are the unique guiding principles that the North Korean educational system has to follow in its operation. The initial idea of Juche stated by Kim Il-Sung is that the human being is the prime actor as the only determinant of creating history (Kim Il-Sung's collection of writings, 6: 277). The Juche idea emphasizes the independence of people as a collected identity of human beings with the capacity of creating its own history.
This Juche idea implies that North Korea must pursue an independent course of action from the influence of other countries in politics, economy, and national defense. It also implies that people must realize the revolutionary ideals with consciousness and revolutionary action. However, in the practice of the Juche idea, "Juche Doctrine" emphasizes that people have to be guided by the great leader. Critics of "Juche Doctrine" indicate that there is a logical gap between the original Juche idea and justification of the guidelines by the great leader. "Based on these guiding principles, the state has to develop a general school system that provides basic and common education and a recurring educational system for lifelong learning for workers in various occupations. A general school system has to contribute to the development of basic science, social science, and technologies" (Constitution, Article 46).
The state has continuously developed an educational policy framework directed to give priority to (1) politicalideological education for all students, (2) science and technical education, and (3) highly selective education for the elite political-governing sector, science technology areas, and a recurring education system in higher education.
The 11-year system of compulsory education is the most effective way to meet the requirements of politicalideological education (general school system). This equity-oriented school system is parallel with the very selective "center schools" and key leading universities. These educational institutions serve special purposes for the school system and are the second category in the system. The third category is the recurring and lifelong education system for all workers.
North Korea's educational system is considered to be the initial indoctrination into the Party's ideology, and in turn, it is highly integrated with the political system to meet the Party's political needs and control. The system is closely coupled with the political, administrative, economic, and social systems.
In the first place, the political system directly controls the economic and administrative systems through the Party's guidelines and executive orders. The political system extends its control of people's daily lives through the administrative, economic, and educational systems. The social system also influences education by providing hidden curriculum to make people adapt themselves to the social structure. The educational system is served with financial support from the economic system.
The educational system's unique contribution to the other systems in North Korean society takes several forms. Politically, the educational system contributes to maintaining the state system by providing the ideological justification for the state system. In this context, the political indoctrination into the "Juche Doctrine" plays a very important role. Socially, the educational system does much for social control by instructing people in the hidden curriculum. The educational system also contributes to the functioning of the economic and administrative systems by supplying administrators from the elite class and technical-managerial manpower.
However, the deteriorating economy can hardly provide adequate financial support for operating the state's educational system. Since 1990, the growth rate of the Gross National Product (GNP) has been at a negative 3.7 percent average for the last eight years. Per capita GNP decreased from US$1,064 in 1990 to US$910 in 1996.
North Korea has adopted an efficient school system to provide 11 years of free compulsory education, kindergarten through secondary, for the entire school-age population by shortening the schooling period by two years compared to most countries. The educational system claims to provide equal education through the secondary level. The 11 years of K-10 free schooling is a case in point. After 10 years, since North Korea adopted 11 years of compulsory education, the government began to drive the movement by making it possible for all citizens to become intelligentsia by offering almost universal opportunities for higher education. The recurring higher education at the various kinds of attached universities was institutionalized for this purpose.
In spite of this proclamation and tailoring the school system toward equal education, the educational system maintains a dual structure to support the reproduction of the elite ruling class. It is assumed that this ruling class can enjoy the privilege of putting their children into elite schools and universities.
North Korea has developed a school system of equal education for all children, and the country praises its 11-year, free, compulsory education system. However, by developing special purpose schools for talented children and children of the elite class, the educational system has an efficient means of talent development and class reproduction within the socialistic, equity-oriented educational system.
In the 1950s and 1960s, special purpose schools were originally developed to take care of the children of revolutionaries who died during the Korean War. Special purpose schools to develop special talents were added to this category. There are many kinds of quality schools in the areas of sports, arts, foreign languages, and science.