By Hayoung Paik, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Camille Freestone, HRNK Research Intern
August 4, 2020
Since its establishment, North Korea has prioritized free access to education at all levels. Similar to many other socialist countries, education has been a key tenet of forming and stabilizing North Korea’s socialist system. The number of years of compulsory education has gradually been extended since 1956, and the current Universal 12-year Compulsory Education system, which has been implemented under the Kim Jong-un regime, guarantees free compulsory education for all children ages 5 to 17. North Korea has boasted about this system internally and externally as “the longest free and compulsory education in the world” and used it to propagandize the superiority of the socialist system. However, we should not overlook the true nature and role of education in North Korea: it is the front line of ideological indoctrination and the most effective tool for ensuring the totalitarian regime’s survival. The North Korean education system itself should be considered a human rights infringement.
To understand the idiosyncrasies of North Korean’s education system, it is worth referring to the Theses on Socialist Education released by the Korean Workers’ Party in 1977. It is a collection of Kim Il-sung’s instructions on education thoroughly based on the state’s ruling ideology, “juche,” and has been the essential framework for policies in the North Korean education system. According to the Theses, the fundamental objective of socialist education is to nurture “communist revolutionaries who have independence and creativity,” which is only possible when people are armed with communist ideals. Education should “remold” all students’ thinking and fully imbue them with communist ideas to make them “unfailingly loyal to the Party.” The Theses demonstrates that North Korean education fundamentally aims for indoctrination to manufacture one type of citizen: communist conformists. Students are not seen as individuals with free will and autonomy, but as “moldable tools” whose existential meaning is acknowledged only when they are conforming to the Party’s orders and needs.
How is Indoctrination Implemented in School?
To put the aforementioned framework into practice in school settings, North Korea carries out political and ideological education as part of the curriculum, which consists of subjects about the Kim family members’ lives and about socialist morals or present Party policies. These unique curriculum topics are designed for the idolization of the Kim family and the transmission of socialist and juche ideology. What is striking is that the idolization and ideological indoctrination are attempted not only through these particular classes, but are also spread through all other general subjects, such as Korean, English, geography, and even math and science. In fact, general subjects and textbooks are an effective combination of ideological indoctrination and knowledge transmission. For example, more than 80% of episodic content in Korean language textbooks is for idolizing the Kim family, while continuously arousing hostility toward the so-called “imperialist enemies”—the United States and Japan—or propagating false information, such as South Korea being miserably poor. Therefore, not only must students complete military training in order to graduate, they are also taught how to hate and curse their enemy countries even in Korean-language classes. It is also known that even in kindergarten, children are made to shoot an American soldier’s figure during the sport days or school art festivals.
There is a common feature seen in many general subject textbooks: every unit starts with the words of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, justifying the reason for learning that specific unit and presenting how learners should understand a certain concept or topic. Therefore, classes rarely provide learners with a chance to actively and critically think about new problems or conflicting values since the fixed perspectives or solutions derived from the words of the Supreme Leaders as the unquestionable truth are always impressed upon them from the beginning. In this way, North Korean education continuously injects students with a dichotomous value system of good versus evil throughout the curriculum. The Supreme Leader, the Kim family, the Party, communism, socialism, and collectivism are the absolute good while the United States, Japan, capitalism and capitalists, liberalism, and individualism are the absolute evil. Alternative views or opinions are neither introduced nor allowed. In this kind of educational environment, it is unrealistic to expect students to nurture peaceful, respectful, and forward-looking attitudes toward other people and nations or develop key abilities and capacities, such as creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, or cognitive skills.
What is worse is that this indoctrination mechanism, under the guise of education, has been used by the regime as a tool to overcome national crises such as the famine called the Arduous March during the 1990s and to maintain their dictatorial regime. When North Korea has faced difficulties, the regime has strengthened political and ideological education to evoke people’s anti-“imperialist” sentiment and loyalty to the state. This extreme nationalism, based on a hatred of enemies, unifies North Koreans and “justifies” their sacrifice for the country under difficult circumstances. Thus, education has always been a panacea for the regime. In this sense, universal 12-year compulsory education, which North Korea has boasted as a superior system, equates to the 12-year confinement of children in schools for ideological indoctrination. The true intention of the regime, hidden under the name of free compulsory education, is to create a ubiquitous and systematic mechanism of ideological indoctrination from the earliest stage of childhood development for the stability of the regime.
North Korean Education and Human Rights Infringement
Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), international society has made efforts to ensure education as a fundamental human right. UDHR Article 26 claims that “Everyone has the right to education,” and “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among all.
Although North Korea assures access to education for all children, it does not mean that they assure “education as a human right.” Rather, it should be said that North Korea’s education system fundamentally violates human rights. First, it does not educate children on their fundamental human rights. Students are forced to be ignorant of their own as well as others’ human rights. If they have no conceptual knowledge and understanding of human rights, it is difficult to recognize the violation of human rights in their society. Second, as a form of indoctrination, North Korean education negates children’s other fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of thought by depriving them of the chance to adopt knowledge and information with alternative ideas and opinions. This not only degrades children’s inherent dignity and personality, but also seriously impedes their proper socio-emotional, cognitive, and intellectual development. Education in North Korea also functions as propaganda, forcing students to hate, disrespect, and loathe other countries. Last, but not least, North Korea has abused its education system to maintain its repressive, totalitarian regime by imposing the idolization of the Kim family and the systematic indoctrination under the guise of free compulsory education. Education as a tool for sustaining the system that severely abuses human rights should be considered a serious human rights infringement.
The regime and the Korean Workers’ Party should stop political and ideological education that violates education as a human right and reform the North Korean education system to align with the international human rights guidelines and norms. Human rights should be taught as well as be respected within the entire education system. The international community and human rights defenders must also keep North Korean education in focus and continue to emphasize human rights abuse in and through the education system because it is a fundamental tenet of what has sustained this human rights-abusing regime. It is a difficult task, but educational reform would have the biggest impact on North Korea’s future human rights status by freeing forthcoming generations from national-communist indoctrination and enabling them to be aware of their own fundamental human rights.
Hayoung Paik is a second-year master's student at the University of Maryland, majoring in International Education Policy.
 See Institute for Unification Education, 2020 Bukan Ehae [2020 Understanding North Korea] (Seoul: Ministry of Unification, 2020). This latest education system consists of one year of kindergarten, five years of primary school, six years of junior secondary and senior secondary schools (three years each).
 Jin-sook Kim, “Bukanui ‘jeonbanjeog 12-nyeonje uimugyoyuk-e ttareun hakje-wa gyoyukgwajeong gaejeong donghyang” [Curriculum and Educational Course Revision according to North Korean ‘Overall 12-year Compulsory Education], KDI Review of the North Korean Economy (June 2016): 5.
 “Theses on Socialist Education,” Institute for Unification Education, https://www.uniedu.go.kr/uniedu/home/brd/bbsatcl/nknow/view.do?id=31829&mid=SM00000536&limit=10&eqViewYn=true.
 Kim Il-sung, These on Socialist Education, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QZ4_KuSE8foOfwcVi2lnwEmLwQaNB3xn/view.
 See Jin-sook Kim, “Bukan Kim Jong-un chaejae-eui kyokwakyoyuk donghyang” [Subject Matter Education under the Kim Jong-un Regime in North Korea], KDI Review of the North Korean Economy (August 2018): 26. See also Robert Collins, Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2016), 69-70. Specific subjects for political and ideological education in junior and senior secondary schools include: The Respected Supreme Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung’s Revolutionary Activities; The Respected Supreme Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung’s Revolutionary History; The Great Leader Marshal Kim Jong-il’s Revolutionary Activities; The Great Leader Marshal Kim Jong-il’s Revolutionary History; Communist Morals; and Present Party Policies.
 Kim, “Bukan Kim Jong-un chaejaeui kyokwakyoyuk donghyang,” 34; Chan-seok Park, Bukan Kyoyuk Yeongu [Study on North Korean Education] (Paju: KSI, 2013), chap. 4, Kyobo eBook.
 Kim, “Bukan Kim Jong-un chaejaeui kyokwakyoyuk donghyang,” 38.
 Park, Bukan Kyoyuk Yeongu, chap. 4.
 See “미국놈 때려잡는…” 北유치원생 수업 내용이… [“Knocking Out American Bastards…” Classes in North Korean Kindergarten], ChoongAng Ilbo, June 22, 2012
 Park, Bukan Kyoyuk Yeongu, chap. 4.
 Ibid, chap. 3. See also W. Courtland Robinson, Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Korean Children, 1990-2018 (Washington, D.C.: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019), 51.
 Ibid, chap. 1.
 See “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
 Tristan McCowan, Education as a Human Rights (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), chap. 5, Kindle.
 See “Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” UN General Assembly document A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014. It also makes the following recommendation to North Korea: “Introduce education to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and abolish any propaganda or educational activities that espouse national, racial or political hatred or war propaganda”.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.