“I am a teacher, not a tax collector”

Young students in North Korea are mobilized for extra labor (Image: Roman Harak )

“I am a teacher, not a tax collector,” the teacher explained after announcing he was quitting. “I can no longer do this even if I end up without a job and starving.”

The comment, recalled by one of the teacher’s colleagues, named Kim, 52, who escaped to South Korea, point to the sickness in the North Korean education system. 

The state’s exploitation of students is widely known. But what does it say about the teachers who carry it out on behalf of the regime?

What do the people, who are directly responsible for the brainwashing and enslaving of the children under the Kim dictatorship, think? Are they perpetrators complicit with the dictatorship, or are they victims as well?

Educators in North Korea are officially considered “professional revolutionaries.”

“I may have been called this,” said Cho, 42, who taught for ten years and now works in construction in the South. “However, it did not mean I had economic privileges. It was just a verbal distinction. While it is true that stores have signs saying ‘Teachers are served first,’ teachers are too poor to take advantage of this service. What can you buy with a monthly salary of 2,000 North Korean won (US$0.2)?” 

“I should point out that the term ‘service’ here means simple sales,” he said. “It’s not the kind of service you might expect. Looking back, it seems that this recognition as professional revolutionaries was probably because teachers are at the forefront of the Kim family’s policy of enslaving the citizenry.” 

Teachers are required to conduct what are best described as five-minute worship services about Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un before every class. All education and training for students begins this way.

The country introduced four-year compulsory elementary education in 1956 and added three years of middle school in 1958. Two more years were added in 1967. In 1975, an 11-year system, including one year of kindergarten, was put in place. In the mid-1980s, the government introduced specialized education for gifted students, establishing middle schools in every district for the purpose. Then in 2011 the elementary school course was extended to five years, resulting in the current twelve-year compulsory education system.

“Students who could not get into the district middle schools for gifted students became disillusioned with their future, neglected their studies, and even avoided participating in organized activities, which became a problem,” said the defector Kim. “As a result, in 2009, all district middle schools, except those at the municipal and central levels, were abolished.” 

The regime boasts that theirs is a “nation of education” and that youngsters are the “kings of the country.” But it does not really invest. The financial burden is borne entirely by the students. For example, children are responsible for maintaining school buildings, educational equipment, and all other educational institution maintenance and operational costs. They are also mobilized for regular “Kkoma (kids) plans.”

Kids are trapped at around age ten in these plans as soon as they put on the red scarf as Young Pioneers.

Children from nine to 17 must donate materials to the state each month according to the Kkoma plans of the Young Pioneer Corps and Youth League Organization at their school, according to the defector Cho.

“If they do not participate faithfully, their advancement to higher schools, like foreign language schools or arts schools, and the elite No. 1 Central High School, and university is restricted,” he said.

Here is a list of what they are required to bring to school each month: scrap iron, 5 kg; scrap plastic, 2 kg; paper, 3 kg; scrap copper, 0.5 kg; broken glass, 3 kg; and scrap aluminum, 1 kg.

“They also bear the financial burden of maintaining school buildings and getting new facilities,”  Cho said. 

He recalled that in 2010, when schools were instructed by the authorities to buy computers and CCTVs for classrooms, they collected an average of $10 per student. 

“In the school where I taught, this directive overlapped with an unfinished fence repair project that had stalled the year before due to a lack of materials,” Cho said. On top of the regular donations, his students had to provide $10 cash; cement, 50 kg; 50 bricks; sand, 100 kg; planks of wood, 3 meters; rectangular lumber, 3 meters; and rebar, 2 meters.

Given that the average monthly salary at the time was 2,000 won, this was never easy for parents.

There was in fact an outcry. “People felt if this continues, the state should stop calling it free education and start charging tuition fees,” Cho said. 

As for teachers, they were forced to prioritize the collection of these various materials and money over teaching and began to wonder what their job actually was. 

“It felt like we were coming to school day and night just to collect debts from students. We’re like old tax collectors. Some even quit over this,” he said. ‘Although salaries reportedly increased in education and other sectors last year by 20 to 30 times, soaring exchange rates and prices have left the lives of teachers and students largely unchanged.

Zane Han

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