Inside North Korea’s education system

By Jinny Ha-kyung Kim

Why, after almost 70 years of despotism, the world’s most oppressive country cannot have an ‘Arab Spring’

*Names of defectors have been changed for their safety.

During the 46 years of Kim Il Sung’s totalitarian rule of North Korea, thousands were tortured and killed through forced labor, exile in gulags, sexual violence, purges, and executions. Those who were suspected of committing a crime against the state would be banished to prison camps, along with their families. Three generations of a family would be forced to remain in these gulags to properly atone for their kin’s “misdeeds.” And hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation during the “Arduous March,” a period of famine largely attributable to the breakdown of the public food distribution system.

Yet when he suddenly died in 1994, thousands of North Koreans lined the streets, sobbing inconsolably. His regime was marked by a steep economic decline, the advent of ongoing human rights abuses, and the infamous “Arduous March.”  Likewise, when his son and successor Kim Jong Il died after 17 years of authoritarianism in 2011, what ensued again was a period of mass public grief—no revolt, no uprising, despite the uncertainty regarding the successor.

Why did the North Korean people simply watch as another son was named to the tyrannical dynasty? Why not raise an insurrection or rebellion?

Answer: Because it is impossible.

To understand why something like the “Arab Spring” can never occur in North Korea one must gain an understanding of its education system. The North Korean education system is centered around idolization, falsification of history, and violent and hateful propaganda—making its citizens voiceless and blind, unable to rise up against their dictator.

The Basics of the System

According to UNESCO’s Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, education must be geared toward promoting “understanding, cooperation, and peace and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

However, the North Korean Constitution Article 43 states, “Through socialist education, for the sake of future generations and citizens, North Korea shall fight a revolution to raise its citizens with knowledge and virtue,” defining revolution as idealistic in education, for the sake of controlling and brainwashing the North Korean citizens.

On September 25th, 2012, the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly announced a newly-revised 12 year compulsory education system. Under this new system, pre-school children, academic professionals, and adult part-time students are divided by the system. The standard academic years have been set as 5 years of elementary school, 3 years of middle school, 3 years of high school, and 4–6 years of college. Elementary school is for students ages 7–11, middle school for students ages 11–13, and high school for students ages 14–16.

Following high school, the education system is divided into colleges, universities,  and vocational colleges, as well as miscellaneous educational institutions for “part-time education.” Some of these include factory colleges, plantation colleges, fishing colleges, night schools, communication schools, and broadcasting educational institutions. Men are also required to serve in the military, while women may either also enlist or immediately enter the job market.

Elementary school curriculum and distribution of hours for each subject per week

DivisionSubject1st grade2nd grade3rd grade4th grade
Political ThoughtThe Childhood of Our Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung1112
The Childhood of Our Great Leader Kim Jong-Il1112
The Childhood of the Anti-Japanese heroine, Mother Kim Jong-Suk---1
Socialist Morality2211
Language and HumanitiesKorean6678
Math and Natural SciencesMath6666
Natural Sciences2222
Arts and Crafts2211
Physical Education2222

Middle school curriculum and distribution of hours for each subject per week

DivisionSubject1st grade2nd grade3rd grade
Political ThoughtRevolutionary History of Our Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung22-
Revolutionary History of Our Great Leader Kim Jong-Il-22
Revolutionary History of the Anti-Japanese Heroine, Mother Kim Jong-Suk1--
Revolutionary History of Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un111
Socialist Morality and Law111
Language and HumanitiesKorean555
Joseon History112
Joseon Geography111
Math and Natural SciencesMath656
Natural Sciences555
TechnologyInformation Technology2 weeks2 weeks2 weeks
Basic Technology111
Misc.Physical Education2 (1 week)2 (1 week)2 (1 week)
[1] Institution for Unification and Educational Development, 2016 Understanding North Korea (Seoul, Sanghyun D&P: 2015), 237.

High school curriculum and distribution of hours for each subject per week

DivisionSubject1st grade2nd grade3rd grade
Political ThoughtRevolutionary History of Our Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung32-
Revolutionary History of Our Great Leader Kim Jong-Il-24
Revolutionary History of the Anti-Japanese Heroine, Mother Kim Jong-Suk-1/2-
Revolutionary History of Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un111
Current Government Policy1 Week (20)1 Week1 Week
Socialist Morality and law111
Language and HumanitiesPsychology and Logic--1 Week
Korean Literature323
Chinese Characters111
Math and Natural SciencesMath55/44
TechnologyInformation Technology211
Basic Technology2 weeks3 weeks3 weeks
Industrial (Agricultural) Foundation--4
Misc.Physical Education111
MilitaryBasic Military Operations-1 week (48)1 week (48)

It is clear that the objective of North Korea’s education system is only to propel “revolutionary ideals”—revolution not in the orthodox sense—rather, defined as “ideals that support the country and the Kim dynasty. The contents of the education include Juche ideology, labor party policies as well as the refinement of the revolutionary traditions, communist beliefs, and more. The goal of its science and technology education is the advancement of North Korean technology. Physical education serves to have its citizens physically fit for labor and military duty.

If one juxtaposes North Korean legislation and legal theory with the reality, it is clear that the goals of North Korean education is not even close to including universal values such as peace, tolerance, equality, dignity, and humanity. North Korean education is no different from raising slaves.

Into the System

Similar to the education curricula of other nations, the North Korean education curriculum includes the country’s native language (Korean), mathematics, foreign language, and science. However, much emphasis is put on the importance of a curriculum centered around political thought, putting it above all other subjects in priority. This political science education is further subdivided into topics of socialist morality and the revolutionary histories and deeds of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Sook, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un, which carry enormous weight within the overall education curriculum.

This political curriculum puts significance in the idea that the Kim family was a group of revolutionaries whom all citizens should seek to take after. This is evident in the forewords in the North Korean textbooks. For example, in the foreword of the textbook for the subject named “Revolutionary History of the Supreme Leader Kim Il-Sung”, one of the subjects taken in the 1st year of high school, it is written that the most important objective in becoming a Juche revolutionary is to learn about Kim Il-Sung’s greatness and revolutionary history, and “to study hard in order to emerge as a revolutionary warrior grounded in loyalty towards the party and the leadership.”[2]

The distortion of history, along with idolization, is part of the indoctrination education system designed to maintain the single-party dictatorship of North Korea. The government legitimizes the regime through its distortion of history, idolization of its leaders, and accentuation of the claim that North Korea is a great nation. History is distorted in various ways, including the changing of contemporary Korean history; the manipulation of the truth about Kim Il-Sung’s anti-Japanese war efforts; glorifying the Kim family history; as well as the intentional misinterpretation of world history. One notable example of historical distortion is the curricula about the Korean War itself:

“On June 25th, 1950, the American invaders began its attack against the northern part of the Republic by instigating the South Korean puppet government led by Rhee Syngman.”[3]

Chinese involvement in the war beginning in October of 1950 is never mentioned anywhere, despite the fact that Kim Il-Sung focused on rebuilding the military and the government while relying solely on Chinese forces for the counterattack. All the credit for fighting the southern forces is attributed to Kim Il-Sung’s leadership and the North Korean military.

Furthermore, the Kim family is falsely deified by the education with outlandish claims. “Kim Il-Sung is often described as a partisan general who defeated a million Japanese soldiers. Stories say that he made grenades with pine cones and bullets with sand. My elementary textbook said that he used teleportation when he annihilated the Japanese. I couldn’t help but believe it because I grew up learning about it my entire life… I was quite confused when I learned the truth in elementary school. It took me a couple of years to come to accept the truth,” said defected Soo-Min Hwang. Ji-Yeon Kim, a former teacher who formerly taught revolutionary history said, “I just taught them the subject systematically because it was on the tests… We had no choice because of the established system… It was just being drilled into the students.”


North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated countries and flagrant abuser of human rights. Its citizens are victims of mass media surveillance and monitoring, and are devoid of freedom of speech and association. Yet, not coincidentally, they idolize the Kim family, maintaining the regime for the next heir.

The reason for this irony stem from North Korea’s education system. The North Korean government indoctrinates their citizens with loyalty through idolization in the school curriculum. The school curriculum justifies Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship and Songun Politics that neglects human rights of North Koreans via historical distortion, and focuses to strengthen violence and hatred through hatred education. The North Korean education system completely ignores international laws that the government has ratified, which is severely disruptive to the intellectual development of the students.

During the height of the Arab Spring, the South Korean government dropped propaganda leaflets in impoverished areas of North Korea containing information of the democracy uprisings in various Middle Eastern countries. It was thought that perhaps this could foment an uprising in North Korea. After all, North Korea shares many of the same characteristics as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and various other nations who participated in the Arab Spring. Ruled by authoritarian leaders who  amassed massive amounts of wealth; mass poverty and economic malaise amongst the general population; a few wealthy, politically connected elite; suppression of dissent; human rights abuses conducted by administrations.Yet none of these nations were quite as isolated as North Korea, nor did they have such a large-scale system of indoctrination, brainwashing, propaganda, deification of leader, and distortion or history that North Korea maintains through its education system.

For this very reason, North Korea cannot have a “Korea Spring.” Nowhere in the world has there ever existed a system of ideological manipulation in such magnitude as the education system in North Korea.  “I feel such pity for children in the system. They can’t see the world but learn to live like that unconsciously,” said defector Yeon-ri Kim.

It is the education system which renders the people of North Korea blind and voiceless, unable to speak up against their oppressive leader. The rest of the world can’t just be waiting, expecting the Kim regime to be toppled by a revolution. As long as the international community allows for North Korea to continue its education system the way it is, the established cycle of tyranny and suppression will continue.

Jinny Ha-kyung Kim is a student in Princeton, NJ and intern at PSCORE Korea. She has published articles in several magazines, including The Diplomat.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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