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North Korea Index


Students in P'yongyang rehearse for Kim Il Sung's eightieth birthday celebration, April 1992.
Courtesy Tracy Woodward


Students playing traditional Korean instruments in a music class at the Mangyngdae Schoolchildren's Palace, P'yongyang, opened in May 1989
Courtesy Tracy Woodward


An English class at P'yongyang Senior Middle School
Courtesy Tracy Woodward


Figure 5. Structure of the Education System, 1991

Source: Based on information form K ktong Munje Yn'quso, Pukhan Chns, 1945-1980 (A Complete North Korean Handbook), Seoul, 1980, 595; "Public Education System of the DPRK," in Do You Know about Korea?, Pyongyang, 1989, 50; and Park Youngsoon, "Language Policy and Language Education in North Korea," Korea Journal [Seoul], 31, No. 1, Spring 1991, 33.

Formal education has played a central role in the social and cultural development of both traditional Korea and contemporary North Korea. During the Chosn Dynasty, the royal court established a system of schools that taught Confucian subjects in the provinces as well as in four central secondary schools in the capital. There was no state-supported system of primary education. During the fifteenth century, state-supported schools declined in quality and were supplanted in importance by private academies, the swn, centers of a neo-Confucian revival in the sixteenth century. Higher education was provided by the Snggyungwan, the Confucian national university, in Seoul. Its enrollment was limited to 200 students who had passed the lower civil service examinations and were preparing for the highest examinations.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed major educational changes. The swn were abolished by the central government. Christian missionaries established modern schools that taught Western curricula. Among them was the first school for women, Ehwa Woman's University, established by American Methodist missionaries as a primary school in Seoul in 1886. During the last years of the dynasty, as many as 3,000 private schools that taught modern subjects to both sexes were founded by missionaries and others. Most of these schools were concentrated in the northern part of the country. After Japan annexed Korea in 1910, the colonial regime established an educational system with two goals: to give Koreans a minimal education designed to train them for subordinate roles in a modern economy and make them loyal subjects of the emperor; and to provide a higher quality education for Japanese expatriates who had settled in large numbers on the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese invested more resources in the latter, and opportunities for Koreans were severely limited. In 1930 only 12.2 percent of Korean children aged seven to fourteen attended school. A state university modeled on Tokyo Imperial University was established in Seoul in 1923, but the number of Koreans allowed to study there never exceeded 40 percent of its enrollment; the rest of its students were Japanese. Private universities, including those established by missionaries such as Sungsil College in P'yongyang and Chosun Christian College in Seoul, provided other opportunities for Koreans desiring higher education.

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. 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 P'yongyang, 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.

Data as of June 1993

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