Students under pressure to erase South Korea from textbooks before the school year starts

North Korean students studying in Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang on April 13, 2018. ( Serkan Bakir)

Since Kim Jong-un declared South Korea to be his implacable foe, authorities in North Korea have been issuing instructions to have all references to the Korean peninsula, the Korean people, and the Republic of (South) Korea, along with mention of “national reunification,” “peace,” “separated families,” and “our people,” comprehensively air-brushed out of existence.

The purge includes more poetic references to the peninsula, such as “samcheonri” (literally, 3,000 ri or Korean miles, a reference to its length) and “Paektu Halla,” after the mountains on the northern border with China and on the southernmost island of Jeju, respectively.

The references are being taken out of all internal and external documents and materials and even the works and anthologies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Other targets are maps, songs, films, books and artwork.

This frenzy of activity following Kim Jong-un’s new ideology of antagonism started in February in factories, companies, social organizations, and work units. 

It is especially impacting schools. According to a teacher at an upper middle school in North Pyongan Province, in a nationwide educational directive in late February, schools were ordered to rid textbooks of maps that show the whole peninsula, as well as all phrases related to national reunification, and certain photos. 

The directive covers all grades, from kindergartens to primary schools, lower middle schools, and upper middle schools. Especially impacted are subjects such as revolutionary history, geography and Korean history.

The reason it is being done by hand is that there is no time to publish new textbooks for every grade  before the new academic year begins in April.

The doctored textbooks have to be fixed and submitted for school approval by the end of this month.  To meet the deadline, schools across the country have established methods and deadlines for students and parents to remove phrases and pictures. They are to cut out little blank strips of paper and stick them over the offending phrases and pictures. 

Students and parents have to buy paper themselves at the jangmadang markets, make glue, and do the cutting and pasting. 

Needless to say, there is growing dissatisfaction and complaints in young families where elementary school students cannot perform the task and parents have to do it for them.

The results often look grotesque as the paper strips may not match the color of the paper in the school books. Currently, North Korean textbooks are published in two types. One is made of relatively good quality white paper and the other is printed on low-quality paper that is easily torn and has a dull coloring. 

The good textbooks are sold at high prices in the jangmadang or at libraries targeting well-off residents, while the low-quality textbooks are distributed directly to schools. The latter books are limited and usually there are only one or two copies for each class. Last year, the Pyongyang Printing Factory produced only around 3,000 to 5,000 copies per subject. 

Given the worship of Kim Il-sung, his wife Kim Jong-suk, their son Kim Jong-il, and grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un, the printworks prioritized the production of 5,000 copies of textbooks on the revolutionary activities of the dynasty. It is no wonder there were shortages in other subjects.

The silver lining to this cloud is that students without textbooks don’t have to engage in the meticulous deletion project. It’s the students from well-off families and teachers in those areas who are busy at it. 

Thus, it is the elite that is dissatisfied, wondering why they have to engage in such a pointless activity to produce ugly textbooks with strips of paper pasted all over them. 

Some ask whether it is right that an individual erase the identity of a nation.

What is not yet clear, the teacher said, is what the deletions mean for the actual curriculum. It is likely that topics related to Kim Jong-un will be used as replacements, but the absence of lesson plans and teaching materials poses a challenge.

Era Seo

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