The use of youth and youth organizations to promote the ideals of the North Korean system, while indoctrinating future generations, is a fascinating part of what has created a stable regime.
North Korea is certainly not the first country to use youth in this way, nor the first to create compulsory youth groups. However, this particular type of organization and implementation is distinctly North Korean, and provides a greater understanding of the maintenance of repression in the country.
The organization of young people is done in such a way that the indoctrination of the population is all a part of growing up. Children receive much of their education through the North Korean school system. However, it is also mandatory for them to join the Young Pioneer Corps at age 9 and move on to the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League between the ages of 14 and 16.
Helen Louise Hunter explains in North Korea: A Country Study that the day a child becomes a Young Pioneer is the happiest day of childhood for many. Not only is there a celebration at school attended by parents, the children also receive a red scarf and gifts from their families – a distinct change from the typically modest existence of North Koreans.
The Young Pioneers and Socialist Youth League are part of the larger Korean Children’s Union, which is all-encompassing in the indoctrination of its members.
It is clear why the North Korean regime employs this program. Michael H. Kater, distinguished research professor of history at York University in Toronto and an expert in youth indoctrination, told NK News that “any messianic movement, whether it be the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Nazis, needs recruits, or it will wither. You have to establish timely ideological and organizational frameworks within which to rear your successors.”
However, the way the system is set up, which undoubtedly trains young North Koreans to feel like they are part of improving a thriving nation, is a fascinating example of the powerful strategy and rhetoric employed by Pyongyang to enforce, strengthen and maintain support.
‘In general, young people are far easier to indoctrinate than adults because they are in the midst of identity formation’
Education is a key component of any kind of systematic indoctrination. Criminal justice professor Adam Lankford told NK News that, “In general, young people are far easier to indoctrinate than adults because they are in the midst of identity formation. A child or teenager’s self-concept, personal values, desires, fears and hatreds can all be profoundly manipulated.”
Formal education is simple means of doing just that.
In a column for NK News, Monique Macias explained that her experience of education in North Korea was centered around the Korean War. Students are, she said, taught that South Korea was the aggressor of the Korean War and taught that Americans are “evil and barbaric” in the “atrocities” they committed during the war.
“Fear of a common enemy typically unites people, because they realize that their best chance of survival is to fight together,” Lankford said. “When they enemy is a real and serious threat, this is justified and appropriate, but historically, far too many leaders have pointed to false or exaggerated enemies in order to rally supporters to their cause.”
Based on the abundance of anti-American and South Korean materials used throughout childhood and into wider society, it is clear that North Korean elite can be categorized within Lankford’s assertion.
If we consider formal education a means of teaching North Korean children the official history of the regime and their place in it, youth movements and participation in the Young Pioneers create an all-encompassing physical and psychological immersion into the role of good citizens.
A special issue of the Rodong Sinmun in honor of Youth Day, a celebration involving a variety of events for young people, extended its greetings to the young people of North Korea and described them as “enjoying worthwhile lives in the posts for defending the country and the work sites for building a thriving nation.”
Articles like this do more than just promote the skills of the youth; they link their actions to the strength of the country and its past and continued prosperity, binding youth, success and prosperity, leaving little doubt in the minds of young people what they must do.
‘…it makes sense that those seeking to disseminate radical ideology would go to great lengths to develop a music culture’
Just as the rhetoric surrounding youth focuses on unity, so too does the use of events. These events, whether local activities or larger marches, parades and performances, all seek to indoctrinate young people through fun, music and inclusion.
“Given the strong evidence of music’s role as a source of social bonding (across cultures), it makes sense that those seeking to disseminate radical ideology would go to great lengths to develop a music culture,” Johnathan Pieslak, an expert in music and extremist culture, told NK News.
In KCNA reports of mass celebrations like Youth Day, music is mentioned often and seems to play an integral part in a number of the Youth Day events.
“Music always plays an important role in all mass movements, because it ties the people together and submerges the individual,” Kater said.
Songs with titles such as We are Successors of the Revolution, March of Korean Youth and Let’s Defend the Party Central Committee with our Lives give a sense of this patriotic, collective rhetoric, clearly promoting these values through song.
It is not only during large Youth Day events that music is used in this way. Young Pioneer groups across North Korea put on smaller pageants which are also televised and seen again and again.
These pageants, seen on Korean Central Television (KCTV), show very young children singing and playing instruments on stage – with their red Young Pioneers scarves prominently on display. One song, What is Songun?, includes the lyrics:
What is Songun?
What does it mean?
I thought to myself
When there’s a rain storm or a snow storm
He stops everything
Sungun means, Sungun means
It’s our General’s love
These lyrics are notable not only for their emphatic promotion of a “Dear Leader,” but also touch on ideas far beyond the understanding of the children singing them, who are likely under 10 years old. Pieslak pointed to a Hitlerjugend memo to explain why children’s songs may be so political. According to the organization’s leaders: “Precisely during celebrations and singing events we have an excellent opportunity to have a political effect beyond the typical formation…”
However, Pieslak also explains that children are no more influenced by music than adults, but rather are more are “more influenced by social induction and wanting to receive acceptance from one’s family and peers.”
Another song, We Grow as We Learn,puts this idea into practice.
When sun rises up in the sky
We walk to school in lines
All my amiable friends
We sing altogether harmoniously
Oh, our Dear Leader
Born on a warm day in (April)
We are all brothers and sisters
By the window that twinkles (shines) with learning
There it overlaps with the rainbow of hope
We spread our wings indefinitely and live energetically
Oh, our Dear Leader
(Receiving the warm love on the April day)
We are the new generation
Always we are one, joyfully
We learn and live
Looking up to our father, our leader
Chosun blossoms into a flower
‘To be part of this group, they have to do as the others do and perform what they are told to’
This piece again promotes the Dear Leader and the regime, but also communicates to the children that they are a group of “friends,” “brothers and sisters” and “a new generation.” To be part of this group, they have to do as the others do and perform what they are told to.
Pieslak explained that “many studies of recruitment into radical movements point to the importance of social bonds, where coming to adopt the movement’s ideology is ‘coming to accept the opinions of one’s friends.’”
SOCIETY OF INDOCTRINATION
To ultimately explain the effect the system has in indoctrinating young North Koreans, turn to two important points raised. The first is the importance placed on education in a culture that gives great value to performing well academically.
“When people are given free training and education, they typically feel very empowered and take personal pride in being smarter or stronger than they ever were before,” Lankford said.
This is part of a wider social imperative of unity.
“There’s no room for debate or questioning things – if you don’t just repeat the lessons you’ll fail,” Macias said. “It’s a collectivist society, not individualistic, and if you’re different from the majority you’ll be treated like a stranger.”
Without presenting any other options, the systematic indoctrination of North Korean youth is certain to succeed. It is built into education; it is also built into society itself.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
The use of youth and youth organizations to promote the ideals of the North Korean system, while indoctrinating future generations, is a fascinating part of what has created a stable regime.North Korea is certainly not the first country to use youth in this way, nor the first to create compulsory youth groups. However, this particular type of organization and implementation is distinctly North
Niki O'Brien is a journalist covering in current affairs and international development. She has previously interned at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea and contributes to The Huffington Post UK Blog. She is based in London. You may follow her on Twitter: @n1k1o