Education in North Korea is free, universal and traditionally has been compulsory for 11 years, from ages four to 15, in state-run schools. According to Kyodo in 2018, there is now 12 years of compulsory education — one year in kindergarten, five years in primary school, three years in lower secondary school and another three years in higher secondary school. Before it was four years of primary school.

The national literacy rate for citizens 15 years of age and older is 99 percent.According to North Korean-supplied figures provided in 2000, there were 1.5 million children in 27,017 nursery schools, 748,416 children in 14,167 kindergartens, 1.6 million students in 4,886 four-year primary schools, and 2.1 million students in 4,772 six- year secondary schools. Nearly 1.9 million students attended more than 300 colleges and universities. Data on teachers are much older. In 1988 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that North Korea had 35,000 preprimary, 59,000 primary, 111,000 secondary, 23,000 college and university, and 4,000 other post-secondary teachers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

Chong Jae Lee wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia: “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. Judging from the information garnered from the very limited number of officially released documents and from interviews with the deserters and refugees from North Korea, we can make some conjectures as to the operating strategies of its educational system and some limitations as to its outcomes. The educational system seems to be so highly coupled with the political system that it becomes very much subordinated to the political system. The educational system is designed to meet the political requirements. It provides an effective mechanism for social integration and for internalizing the information in the "Juche Doctrine." The political function of the educational system seems to be of top priority. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“Uniformity in formal education seems to be the most common characteristic in the operation of the educational system. The political-administrative control of education appears to prefer the uniformity of formal education to diversity in education. This top-down control seems to cause rigidity in managing educational institutes. Uniformity and rigidity also seem to inevitably reduce the autonomy and accountability of schools. Thus, in respect to educational outcomes the supporting mentality for cultivating creativity can hardly be expected.

“The general operational pattern of the educational system seems to be inefficient in human resource development. Too much emphasis on political education takes a large amount of time from developing the educational qualities of knowing and morality. Furthermore, the stifling of individuality in the educational program and rigidity in its management further limit the educational function of the educational system.

Education Statistics for North Korea

Information on education expenditures by the North Korean government is not released. Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 100 percent; male: 100 percent; female: 100 percent (2015) [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Adjusted net attendance rate, one year before the official primary entry age: 97 percent
Percentage of children aged 36-59 months attending an early childhood education programme; 73 percent.
Adjusted net attendance rate for children of primary school age: 97 percent
Adjusted net attendance rate for adolescents of lower secondary school age: 96 percent
Adjusted net attendance rate for youth of upper secondary school age: 95 percent
Completion rate for children of primary school age: 100 percent.
Youth literacy rate for 15-24 years: 100 percent [Source: UNICEF, retrieved 2021]

Gross enrollment: primary: 89.3 percent in 2018; secondary: 92.3 percent in 2015
Out of school children, primary age: male: percent; female: percent; total: percent.

History of Education in North Korea

After the establishment of North Korea, an education system modeled largely on that of the Soviet Union was established. The system faces serious obstacles. According to North Korean sources, at the time of North Korea's establishment, two-thirds of school-age children did not attend primary school, and most adults, numbering 2.3 million, were illiterate. In 1950 primary education became compulsory. The outbreak of the Korean War, however, delayed attainment of this goal; universal primary education was not achieved until 1956. By 1958 North Korean sources claimed that seven-year compulsory primary and secondary education had been implemented. In 1959 "state-financed universal education" was introduced in all schools; not only instruction and educational facilities, but also textbooks, uniforms, and room and board are provided to students without charge. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

By 1967 nine years of education became compulsory. In 1975 the compulsory eleven-year education system, which includes one year of preschool education and ten years of primary and secondary education, was implemented; that system remains in effect as of 1993. According to a 1983 speech given by Kim Il Sung to education ministers of nonaligned countries in Pyongyang, universal, compulsory higher education was to be introduced "in the near future." At that time, students had no school expenses; the state paid for the education of almost half of North Korea's population of 18.9 million.*

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Compulsory education and the general literacy program played a decisive role in forming individuals into new subjects of state socialism, subjects capable of reproducing the state-coined, politically correct vocabulary and revolutionary rhetoric. Starting on 1 November 1958, all education up to middle school became compulsory and free of charge. By 1975, North Korea had extended this to eleven years of free compulsory education, including one year in a collective preschool. In addition, factories and collective farms have nursery schools where children are introduced to socialization and taken care of collectively away from home, since mothers are usually full-time workers. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Emphasis on Education Among Northern Koreans

According to Explore North Korea tour group: North Korean people study very hard. After senior middle school students have to study very hard to get to university otherwise you can not pay tuition to get to university. If you can not get to university through the exam the government will give you a job to do. After university you have choice to become a soldier or government will find a job for you. [Source: Explore North Korea tour group]

Koreans have traditionally attached much importance to education, A North Korean sayings go: "However difficult the life is, the children must be afforded to go to school " and "We would rather gnaw at the barks in order to afford the children to school". According to research and statistics from 1990, 822.5 out 1,000 Korean were educated, far above the national level of 698.1 and the average level for minorities. At that time 20 of every 1,000 Koreans had a college education (44 of every 1000 in Yanbian), again far above the national level of 6. According to the Chinese government : “As a result of the fairly high cultural qualities of the Korean nationality, the number of people who are engaged in brainwork such as science, culture and so on is far more than that of the average national level, and numbers of scientific and technological as well as cultural and arts talents are constantly emerging. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

After the liberation of the Northeast, the Korean people in Yanbian, under the lead of the Chinese Communist Party, opened many schools and accelerated the development of education. In 1949, there were 31 middle schools. By 1952, elementary education was basically universal. In 1958, junior high school education was popularized and senior high school education developed to a large extent. By the 1960s illiteracy had been essentially eliminated. In 1958, the first university for minorities in China was established — Yanbian University. After 1958, a number of institutions of higher learning were established, such as Yanbian Medical Institute, Yanbian Agricultural Institute, Yanbian Branch School of Jinlin Academy of Arts, and Yanbian Teachers' Training School. ~

Aim of Education in North Korea

Education is totally controlled by the government of North Korea, which follows the political, economic, and nationalist agenda of Korean Workers ' Party. Education is designed to indoctrinate the entire population in North Korean juche (self-reliance) ideology and the North Korean take on Marxist-Leninism. The educational system also tries to stoke a sense of nationalism and patriotism and create a pool skilled workers, technicians, and scientists to meet the country’s economic objectives. An emphasis has been placed on working and performing military duties while learning. Students are often put to work in the fields during planting and harvest times and are expected to engage in other kinds of labor for the state. In some ways, this is viewed as a reimbursement for providing free, or at least low cost education. [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: 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.“The "Juche Doctrine" has been institutionalized in the ideology and aims of the North Korean educational system. This doctrine requires an educational system involving human resource development along with a political consciousness that follows the Party's course of action. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“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.

“The educational system has been changed to develop a socialistic, efficiency-oriented school system. The current school system is evaluated on the basis of how well it reflects the principles of a socialistic school system and concerns for efficiency. Some key features include: 1) “Beginning schooling at an earlier age — nursery and kindergarten; 2) Providing 11 years of free, compulsory education for every child from the ages of 5 to 15; 3) Maintaining a dual-structured school system or a general type of schooling for the masses and selective elite schools and special purpose schools for the privileged class; 4) No recognition of private schools; and 5) Tight administrative control of schools by the state administrative system. The educational system has also adopted socialistic pedagogical principles.

The thesis of socialist education emphasizes the following principles: 1) Political education in the "Juche Doctrine." This political education focuses on the indoctrinating of the Kim Il-Sung ideology and strategies for the revolution; 2) Collectivistic activities as a major form of the teaching-learning process. The thesis of socialist education puts higher priority on various kinds of collective activities to facilitate the internalization of socialistic collective norms and culture; and 3) Integration of theory into practice. The thesis emphasizes that theory has to be validated in the process of practice, so the teaching-learning process aims to develop "Praxis."

Educational Themes in North Korea

As in other communist countries, politics come first in the education system. In his 1977 "Theses on Socialist Education," Kim Il Sung wrote that "political and ideological education is the most important part of socialist education. Only through a proper political and ideological education is it possible to rear students as revolutionaries, equipped with a revolutionary world outlook and the ideological and moral qualities of a communist. And only on the basis of sound political and ideological education will the people's scientific and technological education and physical culture be successful." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Education is a "total experience" encompassing not only formal school education but also extracurricular "social education" and work-study adult education. According to the "Theses on Socialist Education," the socialist state should not only organize and conduct comprehensive educational programs, eliminating the need for private educational institutions, but should also "run education on the principle of educating all members of society continuously — the continued education of all members of society is indispensable for building socialism and communism."

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “ 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). [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

Juche and Education in North Korea

Juche is a central theme in educational policy. According to Kim Il Sung, "in order to establish juche in education, the main emphasis should be laid on things of one's own country in instruction and people should be taught to know their own things well." In his 1983 speech to education ministers of nonaligned countries, Kim also emphasized that juche in education was relevant to all Third World countries. Kim asserted that although "flunkeyism" should be avoided, it might be necessary to adopt some techniques from developed countries.*

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “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. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“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).

Education and the Political Goals of the North Korean State

Chong Jae Lee wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia: “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- or 12- 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. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“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.

Fallacy of Equal Education in North Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “North Korea has adopted an efficient school system to provide 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. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“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 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.

Social Education and Learning Outside the Classroom in North Korea

Outside the formal structure of schools and classrooms is the extremely important "social education." This education includes not only extracurricular activities but also family life and the broadest range of human relationships within society. There is great sensitivity to the influence of the social environment on the growing child and its role in the development of his or her character. The ideal of social education is to provide a carefully controlled environment in which children are insulated from bad or unplanned influences. According to a North Korean official interviewed in 1990, "School education is not enough to turn the rising generation into men of knowledge, virtue, and physical fitness. After school, our children have many spare hours. So it's important to efficiently organize their afterschool education." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In his 1977 "Theses on Socialist Education," Kim Il Sung described the components of social education. In the Pioneer Corps and the Socialist Working Youth League (SWYL), young people learn the nature of collective and organizational life; some prepare for membership in the Korean Workers' Party. In students' and schoolchildren's halls and palaces, managed by the SWYL Central Committee, young people participate in many extracurricular activities after school. There also are cultural facilities such as libraries and museums, monuments and historical sites of the Korean revolution, and the mass media dedicated to serving the goals of social education. Huge, lavishly appointed "schoolchildren's palaces" with gymnasiums and theaters have been built in Pyongyang, Mangyongdae, and other sites. These palaces provide political lectures and seminars, debating contests, poetry recitals, and scientific forums. The Students' and Children's Palace in Pyongyang attracted some 10,000 children daily in the early 1990s.*

Although North Korean children would not seem to have much time to spend at home, the family's status as the "basic unit" of society also makes it a focus of social education. According to a North Korean publication, when "homes are made revolutionary," parents are "frugal . . . courteous, exemplary in social and political life," and children have proper role models.*

Education and Military Service in North Korea

Most North Koreans spend their prime working years in their 20s and 30s the army. Gifted students with special skills such as in sports and music may be excused military service. For ordinary North Koreans who are not members of the elite the traditional path to obtaining access to higher education is through the army's recommendation after several years' service. Those who are accepted into universities after high school do their military service after they graduate. People with university degrees in science and engineering are exempt from compulsory military service . [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007; [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

North Korean defector Kim Yoo-sung wrote in NK News: “In North Korea, men serve in the military for 10 years and women for seven. The special unit working as Kim Jong-un’s personal bodyguards serve for 13. Military service is compulsory in the DPRK and most people enlist after high school. Those who are accepted into universities do their military service after they graduate. Usually if you have a bachelor’s degree service lasts for five years, but if you studied engineering or science you serve three because the former leader Kim Jong-il wanted to encourage people to study science. [Source: Kim Yoo-sung, NK News, September 11, 2015]

As of mid-1993, Preinduction student training includes both high school and college training corps. Senior middle school students are enlisted in the Red Guard Youth and receive about 300 hours of rudimentary military training annually. Approximately 160 hours of this training takes place at school; the remainder is conducted during a one-time, week-long summer camp. College students are organized into College Training Units. They train for 160 hours annually on campus and participate in a one-time, six-month training camp. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The typical draft age is seventeen — after high school graduation. Some youths are able to postpone entering the military through temporary deferments based on college attendance or civilian occupation skills. The maximum legal draft age is believed to be twenty-five. Eligibility for the draft is based on economic and political factors as well as physical condition. Technicians, skilled workers, members of special government organizations, and children of the politically influential often are excluded from the draft. Most service personnel are single.*

Adult Education in North Korea

North Korea has an adult education system is designed to provide technical training, secure labor for various projects and stir ideological and patriotic enthusiasm. Adult education classes are conducted at factories and other work sites or through correspondence schools located at some colleges and senior technical schools. [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Because of the emphasis on the continued education of all members of society, adult or work-study education is actively supported. Practically everyone in the country participates in some educational activity, usually in the form of "small study groups." In the 1980s, the adult literacy rate was estimated at 99 percent. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In the early 1990s, people in rural areas were organized into "five-family teams." These teams have educational and surveillance functions; the teams are the responsibility of a schoolteacher or other intellectual, each one being in charge of several such teams. Office and factory workers have two-hour "study sessions" after work each day on both political and technical subjects.*

Adult education institutions in the early 1990s include "factory colleges," which teach workers new skills and techniques without forcing them to quit their jobs. Students work part-time, study in the evening, or take short intensive courses, leaving their workplaces for only a month or so. There also are "farm colleges," where rural workers can study to become engineers and assistant engineers, and a system of correspondence courses. For workers and peasants who are unable to receive regular school education, there are "laborers' schools" and "laborers' senior middle schools," although in the early 1990s these had become less important with the introduction of compulsory eleven-year education. *

Adult and Nonformal Education Institutions in North Korea

Chong Jae Lee wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia: “The continuing education system has three types of institutions. First, there are various kinds of institutions for training political elites to be assigned to the Party and government at the central and local level. "The Kim Il-Sung High Level Party School," The People's Economic Institute, Institute for International Relations, The Kumsung Political Institute, and The Kim Hung-Il Military School are the most prestigious institutes at the central level. Local Party branches also operate Communist Party Schools in each province for training middle-level political elite. The provincial Party schools, the railroad schools, and the district-level Party schools are examples of this type of school. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“Second, major production units or governmentoperated companies have their own technical training institutes for developing technical manpower. These are on the job training institutes that provide five- to six-year training programs. Employees must take the courses after working hours. These institutes are named "attached universities" because they're attached to factories, cooperative farms, and fishery cooperatives. Production units or companies operate the attached universities.

“Third, air and correspondence universities were established to give an opportunity for higher education based on the ideals of lifelong education, and for the promotion of the intellectual level of the nation. The Kim Il-Sung Air and Correspondence University is the most famous institute for these purposes. Also, there is a university of television broadcasting for higher education. Their course consists of a five-year curriculum and is considered to offer better educational contents than night courses in the attached university.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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