TEENAGERS IN NORTH KOREA
The legal marriage age in North Korea is 17 years old. From the age of 17, North Koreans are required to carry and ID card. Women often get married around 25 years old and men get married around 30 or 31 years old after their military service.
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “You become a legal adult in North Korea at 17 and immediately receive one of two types of documents – identifying you as either a resident of Pyongyang or not. The type of ID will determine how much freedom of movement you are allowed. Most North Koreans cannot leave the county without the state’s permission but Pyongyang residents have fewer restrictions. This is also the age when all North Koreans will join the youth league, officially named the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League. This organisation is a copy of the Soviet komsomol, however, unlike the USSR, membership is universal. Becoming an adult also means one has a duty to vote. Or rather, to go to the polling station, take a ballot with one name on it, bow to the leaders’ portraits and put the ballot in the box. This is voting in North Korea, and there has never been a single vote against the official candidate since 1958. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]
Military service is compulsory in the DPRK and most people enlist after high school. Conscription for males starts at age 17 and lasts for at least 10 years, usually to age 30. Those who are accepted into universities do their military service after they graduate. People with university degrees in science and engineering are exempt from compulsory military service.
In early 2015, the North Korean government decided to make military service mandatory for all women ages 17 to 20 that have graduated from middle and high school. Prior to 2015, women only served on a voluntary basis. The term of service differs, with women being free from the military at the age of 23. This initiative was proposed to replenish the losses felt in the 1990s during the North Korean famine, when the country experienced widespread death, a low birth rate, and a high child mortality rate. This directive has resulted in much concern, seeing as in most North Korean families, women are the ones bringing in the money by working in illicit businesses.
Population 14 and under: 20.47 percent of the population (male 2,677,578/female 2,571,118); 15-24 years: 14.68 percent (male 1,894,091/female 1,869,799), [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
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.
Being a Teenager in North Korea
Maya Oppenheim wrote in The Independent: “Born in 1986, Kang grew up in the eerie, grey, concrete streets of Pyongyang. Living in a small, ordinary flat in a downtown area of the totalitarian metropolis with his mother, father and sister, Kang spent his days working for the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League and evenings playing pool with friends. [Source: Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, September 9, 2016]
“I worked in the head office but we would go around factories, schools, universities and more teaching people Juche, the state ideology of North Korea,” he explains. “Everyone aged between 15 and 30 has to be in the union. I taught people North Korean culture and encouraged them not to listen to American pop music or watch dramas from South Korea and China”. In other words, life in North Korea was lived out under the unremitting gaze of Kim Jong-Un. So much so that Kang would attend roughly three rallies for the supreme leader every year.
Particularly big was Independence Day. “Observed on 9 September every year, Independence Day is a public holiday which marks the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and its liberation from the Soviet occupation in 1948. For one day, everything in the hermit kingdom is closed and a surreal fist-pumping military parade takes place across the capital city of Pyongyang. “People would gather in the squares from morning until six o’clock and sometimes we would walk with the army. It was a very tiring intense day,” says Kang.
“It wasn’t a fun day,” he reflects. “It was really hard work. Standing and marching for three hours in the wintertime is horrible because it’s freezing. But then in the summer it’s bad because it’s over 40 degrees.” On top of this, as a young teenager Kang would be sent to a village for 14 days of farming once a year. “It was very hard work and there was no machine and only hand. We worked 12 hours a day sometimes 14.”
Teenager Trying to Have Fun in North Korea
Maya Oppenheim wrote in The Independent: Getting drunk with friends till dawn, going on dates to the cinema, playing too many video games. While these might sound like run-of-the-mill adolescent coming of age exploits, these activities took on a rather different form for Jimmin Kang in North Korea. Drinking with friends was overshadowed by the fear of talking about the regime, going to the cinema was blighted by not being able to kiss in public and having to watch one film six times because nothing else was showing. Video games were confined to an interminable cycle of Mario Kart played on 80s consoles. [Source: Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, September 9, 2016]
“Outside of office hours, Kang would then find ways to watch American and South Korean films under the radar of the authorities, watching everything from American action movies with Stephen Seigel to films with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. “You can be killed for watching American or South Korean films or dramas. You might say that’s crazy, but if people understand freedom or know how people in other countries live, it is dangerous for the government”. [Source: Maya Oppenheim, The Independent, September 9, 2016]
“Kang also passed the hours with his girlfriend. In the week they would go on walks alongside the riverside and on the weekends they would go the cinema. However, there was a limit to the intimacy of these dates. “You can’t kiss in public places, it’s not illegal but it’s not cultural practice,” he recalls. ”You’re also not supposed to have sex before you are married.” Inevitably, young people found ways of being intimate with each other. “Parents are often at work all day so couples will go to their house. When I was young a saw a couple having sex in the park”. Watching pornography was another sexual activity which was a no go. “I never watched porn there, it would have been really dangerous. Some people have pornography but if the government found them they would go directly to a camp.”
“After a long shift at work, Kang would often wind down with friends over beers or Suji, Korean vodka. “There were no nightclubs but there are bars where they only sell beer. Women are allowed but no children. It just looks like a normal bar but there is no music. I would go a lot in summertime, about twice a week, because it’s very hot so you want cold beer”.
Despite coming from a middle-class family, for the most part, he says other activities were out of reach due to costliness. “There is one bowling alley in Pyongyang but I only went once because it was very expensive. They only accept American dollars which I had got from selling stuff on the black market,” he recalls. “Roller skating is popular but you can’t go on the streets and must go in a park. Ice-skating is also popular but there is only one place”.
While there were arcade type places where he would play video games, he says it would quickly get boring because the consoles were so outdated. When it came to birthdays, Kang would celebrate with all the usual fare - apart from cake. “South Koreans eat cake but that culture came from America, in North Korea there is no cake. But we would have food, drinking and singing and dancing all night and getting drunk and the party wouldn’t stop until sunshine”.
Nevertheless in a country overwhelmed by electricity shortages, fun was often overshadowed by the threat of electricity vanishing and Kang says sometimes it was not possible to do stuff for days because there was no power. What’s more, he says if the government found you using heating during these periods, you could be sent to a Labour Camp.
North Korea’s Youth Grow Increasingly Critical of the System
In 2017, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported: “The youth of North Korea are more likely to be critical of the country’s political system than older generations and frequently crack jokes about the failings of the Kim Jong Un regime, despite the threat of arrest, according to sources. Sources told RFA’s Korean Service that the country’s youth regularly mock the failings of the political system, which they believe is socialist purely in name, referring to how “China alone is a socialist country with its own characteristics, while ours is a capitalist country with North Korean characteristics.” [Source: Radio Free Asia, Junho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service, April 28, 2017]
“The younger generation today is different from the older generation, which dared not make critical remarks about the North Korean system,” said a resident of Pyongyang who spoke to RFA under condition of anonymity while traveling in China. “They are more open-minded and critical than the older generation. When they meet up, these young people tend not to hesitate to criticize their supreme leader Kim Jong Un and the [ruling] Workers’ Party.”
“North Koreans who make disparaging statements about the government are subject to severe punishment at the hands of the authorities. Earlier this month, sources told RFA that seven railroad workers heard criticizing a recent missile test by the regime were arrested by authorities in Jagang province at the end of March. But according to the source, not only are younger North Koreans unafraid of mocking the government, but they go out of their way to retaliate against anyone who informs the authorities about the things they say. “If they get into trouble because their secret conversations were leaked by some whistleblower [to the authorities], they will chase him or her down and get their revenge in one way or another,” he said.
“When asked why the youth had become so critical of North Korea’s political system, the source told RFA that there is a prevailing sentiment among them that life under the regime is a hypocrisy. “Although the central government keeps praising the lack of an income gap as a merit of socialism, while saying that a large gap between the rich and poor is why the capitalist system doesn’t work, they don’t believe it,” he said. “Instead, they point out that North Korea has become just as capitalist, with a growing divide between the haves and have-nots.”
“A second source in North Pyongan province, near the border with China, told RFA that some young people are showing their dissatisfaction with the Kim regime by altering the lyrics of patriotic songs meant to express admiration of the North Korean leader. “There is a song praising Kim Jong Un’s walk, called ‘ChokChokChok,’ and they sometimes sing the song by changing the lyrics ‘Kim Daejang (General Kim)’ to ‘Kim Ttungbo (Fatty Kim),” said the source, who also asked not to be named.
“A former resident of Pyongyang who has since defected to South Korea surnamed Lee told RFA that few North Koreans understand the concept of socialism and capitalism, and what differentiates the two political systems. “But these young people, who can be called part of the ‘jangmadang’ (private markets) generation, seem to be very critical of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and have to vent their dissatisfaction because they have better access to information about the outside world.” Authorities have long tried to block various forms of information from entering North Korea in an attempt to keep unwanted foreign influences from seeping into the isolated nation. Leader Kim Jong Un is believed to be particularly sensitive about news of the outside world getting into the North because of its ability to undermine his regime’s propaganda efforts and threaten his support base—made up largely of the country’s elite.
Becoming a Party Member in North Korea
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “If you live in North Korea, the single most important factor that will determine the course of your life is whether or not you become a party member. The party’s name is usually translated as the Workers’ Party of Korea, but a more accurate translation would be the Korean Labour Party. The irony of this is that people join it so as not to become a worker – and, if they are fortunate, to avoid physical labour entirely. Rather than a normal political party, it is a huge bureaucratic structure which strives to oversee the country’s economy and society in its entirety. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]
“All members of the North Korean elite, including all the officers in the army, police and secret police, are party members. In fact, becoming a party member is the only way to aspire to a high social position. The party’s structure is quite similar to the Communist party of the Soviet Union: every administrative unit has a committee which serves as the local government.The country as whole is ruled by the Central Committee, which is presided over by the Politburo.
“The procedure for admission into the party has been copied from the Soviet Union: an applicant needs two recommendations from existing members and approval from the local organising committee. If accepted, the applicant is first admitted as a candidate member and is eligible to become a full member after a year.
“Entrants receive a a membership card, which is actually a a small book with a few pages. The party booklet is fetishised in communist countries; losing it is considered a serious offence. Immediately after admission a new party member is granted access to the lowest-level classified documents that are “for party members only”, which outline state ideology and propaganda.
“The party is huge, with more than five million members. Since the population is 24 million, a motivated person with an acceptable songbun (social stature) has a good chance of being admitted. The most secure way to gain acceptance to the party is to join the military. Although this requires a long term of service, 10 years for men and three to six years for women, many North Koreans decide that party membership is worth the sacrifice.
“Political officers decide on admission to the military, so the shortest way to achieve party membership is to be an exemplary student at political training sessions and have good relations with the political officer of your unit.”
Higher Education in North Korea
Fyodor Tertitskiy wrote in NK News: “About a sixth of the population does go to university, which is a high proportion for a country with such a low standard of living. The army also provides opportunities to those who wish to go to university: after four years of service you can sit an internal exam and those who pass are allowed to apply to study. They will then sit a university exam and, if successful, gain admission. All North Koreans, regardless of whether they serve four or 10 years in the army (or don’t serve at all, as bribes can overcome every hurdle), are able to choose to study further. [Source: Fyodor Tertitskiy for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, December 22, 2015]
“Of course, universities have their own hierarchy. The most prestigious institution is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), which was created by Kim Jong-il and has some strange traditions. All courses are taught in English by professors who are all foreigners. Any foreigner who is not a citizen of South Korea is welcome – regardless of qualifications – to become a professor. However, given that professors are not allowed to leave campus without permission, are not paid a salary, are not compensated for their trip to North Korea and are fed badly, very few people volunteer.
“The majority of North Korea’s Number One university professors are Christian fundamentalists, whose trips are sponsored by their church. Still, it is one of the few places in North Korea where you may talk to a foreigner and learn something about the outside world, and is considered very prestigious.
“Kim Il-sung University and Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages compete for the second place. Formally, Kim Il-sung University is considered superior but in practice foreign languages are better taught in the University of Foreign Languages. Graduates are usually fluent in one foreign language and have some knowledge of another.The next level is occupied by other prestigious institutions such as the University of Foreign Relations, Kim Chaek University of Technology and Pyongsong University of Science. The rest follow somewhere behind.
“Songbun is an important factor in a potential student’s chances of success, and someone with a good bloodline will have relatively few problems gaining admission. Another important factor is corruption. North Korean bureaucrats take bribes readily, so bad songbun or poor results can be overcome by rewarding the admissions department. Higher education usually lasts five years, as there is no Master’s degree in North Korea. Rather there are two senior academic degrees: “candidate” (chunpaksa) and “doctor” (paksa).”
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