There are two years of kindergarten, for children aged four to six; only the second year (upper level kindergarten) is compulsory. Each level of kindergarten runs for a year, with the lower level beginning at age four. According to UNICEF the percentage of children aged 36-59 months attending an early childhood education programme in North Korea is 73 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.In 1988, UNESCO reported that North Korea had 35,000 preprimary teachers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “In households in which both parents work and no grandparents live nearby, infants over three months usually are placed in a t'agaso (nursery). They remain in these nurseries until they are four years old. Although t'agaso are not part of the compulsory education system, most families find them indispensable. In the early 1970s, North Korean statistics counted 8,600 t'agaso. The nurseries not only free women from child care but also provide infants and small children with the foundations of a thorough ideological and political education. A South Korean source reported that when meals are given to the infants, they are expected to give thanks to a portrait of "Father Kim Il Sung." [Source: ”Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Kindergarten and Nursery Schools in North Korea

When a child turns five he or she usually goes to kindergarten, where his or her education begins. Even at this early stage, the North Korean education system is filled with state ideology. Children learns that they owe everything to “the Immeasurably Great Men from Paektu Mountain — the Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung, the Great Guide comrade Kim Jong-il and to the beloved and respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un.” Their names must always be written in bold and they are to be spoken about with deepest respect.

Kindergartners learn their enemies are American imperialists, Japanese militarists and the South Korean “gang of traitors”. They are taught to hate them and one should never say that “an American died,” but rather “an American scum kicked the bucket”. On the wall of nursery school one western journalist saw a poster showing "patriotic tots" shooting a "U.S. imperialist monster." All ideological terms — such as the Kims’ titles — are memorized. North Koreans learn words such as “marshal” and “generalissimo” much earlier than “lieutenant” or “colonel”. Reunification of North and South Korean is a common theme is expressed in kindergarten songs and dances.

Nursery schools were called "baby palaces" by Kim Il Sung. "Children are kings, and they should have nothing but the best," he said. One showcase four-story baby palace for 2,000 children, shown to Western journalists in the 1970s, had wadding pools, skylighted playroom with ridable miniature trains and airplanes. The school employed 300 teachers and 100 part-time helpers. [Source: H. Edward Kim, National Geographic, August, 1974]

North Korean Nursery Schoolers Instructed in Weaponry

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: At “Changchon farm community’s nursery school, my brain got a little fixated on the wall art: Just past a painting of children skipping hand-in-hand beneath large letters saying “We Are Happy!” were some fratricidal forest friends. First to catch my eye was a duck firing a machine gun at a wolf. Then I noticed the squirrel with hand grenades taking out a cowering weasel, with backup provided by a hedgehog with a RPG launcher. I suppose in a country that has long followed a policy of songun, or “military first,” the powers-that-be figure it’s never too early to let the youngsters know what’s what. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2016]

There is also “Squirrel and Hedgehog”. ““Squirrel and Hedgehog,” my guides informed me, is as familiar to and beloved by North Korean kids as any Disney toon is to Yankee tots. Produced by state-run SEK Studios, the long-running animated TV show centers on the inhabitants of a make-believe place called Flower Hill, which is populated by squirrels, hedgehogs, and ducks. The squirrels are the leaders, while the hedgehogs are the soldiers. Ducks are, duh, the navy. As you might guess, this squadron represents North Korea. The Flower Hill gang must contend with evil weasels (Japan) and wolves (the United States), while occasionally dealing with friendly but drunk bears (Russia). “It’s a classic,” my guide, Ms. Hwang, informed me. “Everyone knows Squirrel and Hedgehog.”

“Even without Squirrel and Hedgehog, the angelic-looking toddlers of Changchon farm are getting their indoctrination in other ways – from the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging in the classroom, for instance, or the nationalistic anthems the kids are learning to sing. In North Korea, the propaganda starts early. During the visit, one teacher even helped show a young charge how to handle a toy machine gun. Even an eye chart in the nurse’s health room featured military symbolism. Instead of “E” letters pointing various directions, the chart contained progressively smaller lines of everyday basic objects – stars, airplanes, apples, umbrellas. And, oh yes, automatic rifles and handguns.

Primary Education in North Korea

Primary education in North Korea has traditionally consisted of four years of elementary school, called the "people's school," for kids aged six to nine. Kyodo reported in 2018 there is now five years of primary school. According to North Korean-supplied figures provided in 2000, there were 1.6 million students in 4,886 four-year primary schools.In 1988, UNESCO reported that North Korea had 59,000 primary teachers. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia” there were 47,000 primary teachers in the 1990s and student-teacher ratio in primary schools was 40:1 [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

Chong Jae Lee wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia: “Primary school children usually receive 4 hours of instruction each day during 2 semesters of 39 weeks per year. In addition to regular classroom instruction, they participate in various kinds of group activities. In primary education, time allocation for subjects is: political education, 13.6 percent; language, 31.7 percent; and math, 23.1 percent (together accounting for 68.4 percent of general classroom instruction time in primary education). Other subjects are science, 6.7 percent; physical education, 8.4 percent; and music and arts, 16.8 percent (Han Man-Kil 1997). [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“Following the guidelines of the thesis of socialist education, primary education has the unique quality of emphasizing political education and collectivistic pedagogical methods. North Korean's Socialist theory of education even controls extracurricular group activities that are designed to integrate theory with practice even in primary education. Upon graduation, pupils are assigned to secondary schools in their residential areas.

“In 1965, the number of primary schools reached 4,024. That number has increased gradually to 4,700 in 1975; 4,760 in 1985; and 4,813 in 1996. On the other hand, student enrollments reached 1,152,000 in 1965; 1,715,000 in 1975; and 1,908,000 in 1985. But in 1996 the numbers decreased slightly to 1,884,000 students. The number of teachers reached 26,000 in 1965; 39,000 in 1975; and 47,000 in 1985. (Numbers for 1996 are unknown.)

Elementary Schools in North Korea

"North Korean schools" show to journalists in the 1970s, wrote Edward Kim in National Geographic, "are clean, spacious, well equipped. Under the compulsory education program, children attend six days a week for ten years. Stress is placed on group singing, gymnastics, and dance, and such individual skills as wireless communication, automotive repair, and well being. Everyone learns to play a musical instrument." [Source: H. Edward Kim, National Geographic, August, 1974]

Every elementary school student is drilled in air-raid procedures and taught to march. "Students also make extracurricular tours to museums, factories, and farms. I often see them in their red handkerchiefs marching to and from such activities. On Sunday mornings, with shovels slung over their shoulders, groups set out together to farms or work on building projects... [Schools have] one teacher for every 17 students, who are organized into study groups of five, each under a captain who supervises their homework and group activities."

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post: “When Lee Hyun-ji, a North Korean defector, was in elementary school, learning to throw wasn’t a simple matter of pitching a ball. No, in gym class,there was a wooden target showing a human figure with pale skin and a huge nose, with “cunning American wolf” written on it. A young Lee, now 19, and her classmates would practice their throwing with a wooden “grenade.” [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, January 15, 2015]

Secondary Education in North Korea

According to North Korean-supplied figures provided in 2000, there were and 2.1 million students in 4,772 six- year secondary schools. In 1988,UNESCO reported that North Korea had 111,000 secondary teachers. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia” there are 98,000 secondary teachers and a student-teacher ratio in secondary schools of 30:1, with secondary enrollment at 2,915,000. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

Secondary education has been described as both 1) three years in lower secondary school and another three years in higher secondary school; and 2) four years in lower secondary school and two years in higher secondary school. After graduating from people's school, students enter either a regular secondary school or a special secondary school that concentrates on music, art, or foreign languages. These schools teach both their specialties and general subjects. The Mangyongdae Revolutionary Institute is an important special school. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In the early 1990s, graduation from the compulsory education system occurred at age sixteen. Eberstadt and Banister report that according to North Korean statistics released in the late 1980s, primary schools enrolled 1.49 million children in 1987; senior middle schools enrolled 2.66 million that same year. A comparison with the total number of children and youths in these age brackets shows that 96 percent of the age cohort is enrolled in the primary and secondary educational system.*

Higher-Middle in North Korea

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The secondary school is named "The Higher Middle School of Six Years." As its name suggests, the "Higher Middle School" provides six years of schooling. The Higher Middle School has two levels: four years on the lower level and two years on the higher level. The lower level is called the middle school class for students from the ages of 10 to 13. The higher level is named the high school class for those from the ages of 14 to 15. Official documents indicate that there is a selection process at the end of the first four years of schooling. However, it is assumed that automatic promotion to the second fall term is practiced in most schools. [Source: Chong Jae Lee, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc.,2001]

“Secondary education is also focused on political education, basic science and technology, physical education, and music and arts. Major topics for political education include the revolutionary activities of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il, the Party's major policies, and communist morals. The pedagogical practices recommended by the thesis of socialist education are applied systematically. Time allocation of subjects is: political education, 12.5 percent; language, 15.8 percent; math, 18.6 percent; and science, 18.5 percent. These four subjects take 65.4 percent of all instruction time. Foreign language instruction starts at secondary level and takes 9.3 percent of regular instruction time. Other subjects are physical education, 4.6 percent; music and arts, 4.1 percent; and social science, 9.7 percent (Han Man-Kil 1997).

“In secondary education, there were 3,276 schools in 1965; 3,861 in 1975; and 4,842 in 1996. The number of enrolled students in 1965 reached 717,000, and it increased rapidly to 2,322,000 in 1975; 2,655,000 in 1985; and 2,915,000 in 1996. The number of teachers was 27,000 in 1965; 80,000 in 1975; and 98,000 in 1985 (Han Man-Kil 1997).

“In North Korea, basic foundational courses for vocational and technical education are taken during secondary education. In addition to this, secondary school students are expected to develop vocational techniques by participating in the production process as part of their after-school program. There is no vocational secondary school in North Korea. However, there are many kinds of specialized short-cycle institutes for technical education. Large-scale vocational and technical education is conducted on the job for all workers.

Brainwashing High School Students in North Korea

Anna Fifield wrote in the Washington Post:At 14, they move up to the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, which revolves around worshiping the Kim family. High school students in North Korea are must complete a three-year, 81-hour course on the history of Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s KBS World Radio recently reported, citing a copy of the North Korean Education Committee’s “compulsory education outline.” That course is in addition to a 160-hour course on Kim Il Sung and 148 hours of study about Kim Jong Il. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, January 15, 2015]

“Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean literature who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, said that by not allowing people to form their own opinions, North Korea infantilizes its citizens. “North Korea molds children socially,” Gabroussenko said. Books for different generations have different styles — but the same message and characters, sometimes involving South Korean “stooges” or American “beasts.”

“In the children’s version, a child will be fighting Americans by throwing pepper in their eyes and making them sneeze and cough,” Gabroussenko said. In the adult version, weapons, rather than condiments, are used. “The message ‘We are one nation’ implies that you can’t rebel against your father, you can’t rebel about your government, that it’s important to stick together,” she said.

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.

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