A version of this originally appeared, in Russian, here.
North Korea has existed for de jure 67 and de facto 70 years. This is a time comparable with one person’s lifespan. Thus, the majority of the DPRK’s population are those who were born and have spent their entire lives under the rule of Kims. Over this and the following article, I attempt to describe the life of an average North Korean, cradle to grave.
Surely, one cannot possibly hope to grasp the lives of the people of an entire country in one article. A North Korean may be born handicapped. Or become homeless. Or at some point decide to flee the country. Or become imprisoned in a concentration camp. But all these are rare, non-standard scenarios, and here I will try to narrate the life of an average North Korean citizen.
When a baby is born, his/her parents have to register their new child. The information about this new citizen will be kept in three places: in the local town hall, with the formal police and with the secret police. Later a copy would be also kept in the organization this North Korean would be a part of.
The very first thing a newborn gets from the state is songbun, i.e. one of the five social statuses: “special,” “nucleus,” “basic,” “complex” or “hostile.” A policeman takes a file on the baby’s father, looks at his songbun and puts the same stamp on the baby’s new file. In the future songbun will determine where this North Korean would be allowed to live, which university he/she will be able to enter and where he/she would work. And, of course, whether he/she would be able to join the party.
Apart from songbun, the North Korean also becomes entitled to access the Public Distribution System of goods. Theoretically, almost all the needs he/she has are to be satisfied through this system. In practice, after the 1990s the system has largely been dysfunctional.
Finally, soon after birth the baby is inoculated against tuberculosis. Although the state of the DPRK’s medicine is obviously not in great shape, vaccinations are duly performed, which is rare for such a poor country.
… the child learns that he/she owes everything in life to the immeasurably great men from Paektu Mountain
When a child turns 5 he/she usually goes to a kindergarten, where his/her education begins. The North Korean education system is filled with the state ideology, thus the child learns that he/she owes everything in life to the immeasurably great men from Paektu Mountain: the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung, the Great Guide comrade Kim Jong Il and to the beloved and respected Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un. Therefore, their names are to be written in bold and they are to be spoken about with deepest respect. Moreover, the child has enemies: wicked American imperialists, Japanese militarists and the south Korean (as a North Korean would write it) gang of traitors. They are to be hated, so one should say not that “an American died,” but rather “an American scum kicked the bucket.”
All the ideological terms – such as the Kims’ titles – are to be memorized and it shouldn’t be strange to anyone that a North Korean learns words like “marshal” or “generalissimo” much earlier than “lieutenant” or “colonel.”
The North Korean school system consists of two stages – like the British and unlike the American one. Primary school is called “people’s school” and the secondary is called “middle-high,” reminding of the times when the DPRK used the Soviet-style three-stage system.
The curriculum mostly consists of ordinary classes: Korean language, mathematics, literature, etc. A little unusual are “socialist ethics”: This may be the only remnant of the colonial age in the education system, as Imperial Japan was fond of teaching ethics in school. And, for sure, there is a ton of ideology: subjects include “The childhood years of the Beloved and Respected Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung,” “The childhood years of the Great Guide Generalissimo Kim Jong Il,” “Revolutionary activities of the Beloved and Respected Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung,” “Revolutionary activities of the Great Guide Generalissimo Kim Jong Il,” “Revolutionary activities of the heroine of the anti-Japanese struggle mother Kim Jong Suk” and, since recently – “Revolutionary activities the Beloved and Respected Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un” as well.
A foreign language is taught from secondary school. Usually it is, of course, English, or more rarely, Russian. British English is taught as a standard, but this hardly matters, since, when it comes to language, the level of education is horrible. The reason is simple: the DPRK uses its own textbooks, not the one published in the UK or Russia, for foreigners. Native British or Russian textbooks contain too much information dangerous for the regime, and so they are not permitted. And North Korean textbooks are badly written and have lots of mistakes, and the fact that a child is supposed to learn the phrase “Long live Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung!” before “Hello, how are things?” – is not even their biggest problem.
North Korean schools are different – pretty much like everywhere – and the best of them are “No. 1” schools, signifying that they were of the highest quality. A small town usually has one “first school” – which is always the best – and Pyongyang has a few. These schools are, by the way, one of the least corrupt places in the DPRK: surely one can bribe a principal so that one’s child may enter the “first school,” but entering is not enough, one is supposed to study as well – and study hard.
A 10-year-old child joins the Children’s Union. “Joins” means “joins,” not “has an option to join” – there are no exceptions, everyone is admitted. However, the admission is usually done in three stages: first, the best pupils in the class are admitted, then the average ones and then the rest. The Children’s Union members have a distinctive trait of wearing red neckties: this custom comes from the USSR.
On the admission ceremony a child reads the oath of allegiance. Its text has varied from time to time and the following variant is a little obsolete, since nowadays North Korea does not use the word “communism”:
“I join the ranks of the Korean Children’s Union, founded by the Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung and shined upon by the Great Guide Commander Kim Jong Il, do hereby swear to always and everywhere think and act according to the teaching of the Generalissimo Kim Il Sung and Commander Kim Jong Il and to become a good reservist of the brilliant cause of constriction of Communism, which is carried along from generation to generation by the great revolutionary deed of Juche.”
The Children’s Union is the first of the organizations the North Korean will be a member of. Other possible organizations are Youth League, the Party, the Women’s Union, a labor union and the Farmers’ Union. An organization’s task is to conduct “organizational life,” i.e. regular ideological sessions, among its members.
Normally, one cannot leave a county without the state’s permission, but when it comes to the residents of Pyongyang, there far less limitations
Full legal age in North Korea is 17. When a person turns 17, he/she gets an ID. There are two types: “citizen’s IDs” for those who live outside Pyongyang and “Pyongyang residents’ IDs” for those who live in the capital. The document’s type determines the amount of freedom of movement one is allowed. Normally, one cannot leave a county without the state’s permission, but when it comes to the residents of Pyongyang, there far less limitations.
At about the same time the North Korean joins the Youth League (its full name is Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League). Everyone is admitted, pretty much like in the case of Children’s Union. This organization is a copy of the Soviet komsomol, however, unlike the USSR, the membership is completely universal.
And, finally, becoming an adult means one gets a right – or in case of North Korea, a duty – to vote, i.e. visit the polling station, take the ballot with the only candidate’s name, bow to the leaders’ portraits and put the ballot in the box. This is considered to be a vote for the candidate, and there have not been a single vote against since 1958 in the DPRK.
In our next installment, we’ll learn what else happens to an adult North Korean, starting with party membership.
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Featured Image: The only colors you'll find in Chongjin - North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2010-05-08 17:57:32