By Hye-soo Kim*
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, and
Nicholas Chun and Hangyun Kim, HRNK Research Interns
Original translation by Grace Kan, HRNK Research Intern
I would normally wake up at 6:00 a.m. I would help prepare breakfast, pack my backpack, and put on my school uniform and pin. Many people around the world have worn school uniforms at least once in their lives. For some countries with compulsory education, students are required to wear school uniforms up until high school. The North Korean regime, however, forces its students to wear school uniforms starting from elementary school to the end of their university careers. North Korean students must each day wear red scarves that symbolize the communist regime, and pins with portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. For North Korean students, everything—from their uniforms to the utilities in their classrooms—is about representing their loyalty to the Kim family regime.
After breakfast, I would walk 20 minutes to school. I had to arrive at school before 8:00 a.m. Every morning, the Youth Alliance Chairman and Youth Instructors (청년동맹위원장과 청소년지도원) would stand by the front gates and inspect the students’ outfits. If a student comes to school without a pin, scarf, or even a uniform, then that student must undergo self-criticism sessions called saeng-hwal-chong-hwa (생활총화). Students can also suffer verbal and physical abuse if their uniforms do not meet the required standards. This punishment continues from middle school until college.
The North Korean regime teaches its students that uniforms, shoes, and school supplies are all given to students for free by the government. On the birth anniversaries of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the regime provides free uniforms after obtaining the exact measurements of each individual. However, during the transportation process, it is very common for uniforms to get “misplaced” and end up in the black market. The regime’s claims that every student is given a uniform free of charge, and that every student is living a satisfactory life with nothing to envy, are outdated and false. In the end, some students must go to the marketplace to buy uniforms.
Imagine how uncomfortable a college experience without the freedom to choose one’s outfits must be. We are human beings, so, of course, we can sometimes forget to wear uniforms “correctly.” However, in North Korea, not even one mistake is permissible, and the perpetrator must be subjected to ideological education immediately. The North Korean regime forbids youths the liberty to freely choose their fashion. This is especially so among university students, who are the most sensitive to trends, and many of whom yearn for personal freedom. The Kim regime fears what could happen if young people are given the freedom to make their own decisions; thus, the regime strictly controls them.
Generally, blue jeans are a symbol of freedom. In democratic countries, we might even say that blue jeans are part of the standard uniform for college students. Yet, it is absolutely impossible for North Korean students to wear them. Even North Korean adults lack the freedom to make their own fashion choices.
Every North Korean must wear a pin on the left side of his or her chest at all times until the day he or she dies. It is a pin with the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. In North Korea, this pin is called the “Kim Il-sung cho-sang-hui-jang” (“김일성 초상휘장”) in North Korea, and in South Korea it is called the “Kim Il-sung badge.” This pin is considered an embodiment of the sacred image of the Supreme Leader. As this pin symbolizes one’s loyalty towards the Kim family, every North Korean citizen is obligated to wear it.
Entering the girls-only classroom by 8:00 a.m., the classroom leader would tell us what we would do for that day. We would have different classes until 2:00 p.m. The classes lasted about 50 minutes each. Language and math were taught every day. World geography, world history, physical education, music, chemistry, physics, biology, and home economics for girls would rotate so we had each once a week. Kim Il-sung’s history, Kim Jong-il’s history, and Kim Jong-suk’s history were taught 3 times a week. Throughout the day, we were indoctrinated with propaganda sayings like the following:
“어버이수령 김일성 대원수님과 위대한 령도자 김정일 장군님의 배려로 우리는 세상에 부럼 없이 살고 있다.”
"We are living with nothing to envy in the world thanks to the Fatherly Leader Generalissimo Kim Il-sung and the Great Leader Kim Jong-il's care."
After classes ended at 2:00 p.m., our tasks would change depending on the season. In the autumn, we would change into a different uniform and exercise with the Red Youth Guard. Every year at the end of autumn, all students had to go to the mountain for one week to collect firewood for the school. If we were not doing one of these activities, we would collect primroses from the mountains because the regime required a quota of primroses from our school in particular. In the spring, we would help the nearby farms with watering crops and other agricultural labor. When we were not doing these activities after school, we would prepare to participate in festivals to celebrate the North Korean regime’s holidays like Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
After a full day, I would get home around 5:00 p.m. I then had between one to two hours of homework. If I did not finish my homework, I would be hit or embarrassed in front of the boys’ class the following school day. This was cruel and I did not like this. So, I always completed my homework. On top of everything else, every Saturday, we would go to school to participate in self-criticism sessions for two to three hours.
The level of control that the Kim regime holds over the North Korean people is exemplified in the North Korean classroom from the teachings to the uniforms that all students must wear. From the first year of school until adulthood, North Koreans have no freedom or human rights to speak of. This system of total control in the classroom is just one part of the whole picture that contributes to the totalitarian mafia state of North Korea.
To view HRNK's second episode of With Love, Your North Korean Neighbor, please click here or see below.
*Pseudonym for the safety of the author and the author’s family.
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 in May 2020, 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.