The idea of a happy childhood, and of children being “the only kings of the country,” is a core concept in North Korean propaganda.
Official media brags about free school education and afterschool activities, free medical service, school uniform and textbooks distributed by the state, well-organized orphanages, and the absence of corporal punishments in North Korean schools.
Almost none of these achievements, which indeed put North Korea in a good light in comparison to the developing world, are challenged by Western observers. Still, they criticize childhood in the DPRK from a different angle.
In the Western world, childhood in North Korea tends to be thought of as being deeply politicized and oppressive, with the state holding ultimate control over the lives of children.
Discipline and strict order in North Korean schools, the obligatory participation of children in various social campaigns from raising rabbits to collecting scrap metal, the household chores which North Korean kids habitually perform – in the eyes of those from the first world, all this looks like child abuse.
A telling example of this difference in DPRK-Western perception are videos made by North Korean propaganda agencies that you can find on YouTube.
These videos show tiny North Korean guitar players with fixed smiles flawlessly playing their oversized musical instruments, or little singers with heavy makeup and unnatural movements singing patriotic songs, or child mass games participants performing their exercises with robot-like accuracy.
To North Koreans, these videos serve as proud testimonies that children in the DPRK can freely develop their natural talents and pursue their dreams.
To foreign observers, these videos are scary reminders that the lives of North Korean children lack basic freedom and spontaneity.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere else. North Korean childhood is a coherent phenomenon, a product not so much of ideology and cultural traditions but primarily of social reality and grave economic logic.
FREE TO MOVE
Unlike Western pedagogy, in which the concept of free development is paramount, individual freedom of a child has never been an official priority in the DPRK.
Yet paradoxically, for all hard work and discipline, in some ways little North Koreans enjoy more freedom than regular children in today’s liberal societies do.
Western visitors to Pyongyang are often startled by sight of small kids walking along the streets quite independently and purposefully. And these children don’t even seem to be little vagabonds: they’re wearing school uniforms and carrying schoolbags, musical instruments, or sportswear.
In Western societies, such children would be accompanied by an army of adults who would drive them to their destination, wait for the activities to finish, and then drive them back home for dinner.
In some ways little North Koreans enjoy more freedom than regular children in today’s liberal societies do
North Korean parents would surely be startled by this cotton wool style of parenting, which takes protecting children to absurd levels.
What can possibly happen to your precious child in Pyongyang, every single corner of which is transparent? What do you mean by ‘kidnapping’/ ‘street hooligans’/‘child molesters’? Are you implying that passersby would not interfere or not inform the police about anything suspicious?
In fact, living in a police/surveillance state has its advantages, and the protection of children from the ill-intent of others is one of them.
This safety provides North Korean kids, like Soviet ones, with the opportunity to freely explore the world and independently develop basic coping strategies – an opportunity which is rapidly disappearing from little citizens of the first world.
Typical is the story of an employee of the Russian embassy in Pyongyang who, after the end of his service, had to tackle an unusual problem.
His child was born in Pyongyang and considered the city his own backyard. The boy used to walk around town freely; if he got lost, he could ask any passing North Korean for help and they would be happy to help the little blonde lad.
But now, back in post-socialist Moscow, such behavior was unthinkable.
FREE TO COMMUNICATE
A North Korean parent would be shocked by the common Western or South Korean playdate and sleepover, where parents organize the occasion, drive their kid to the other’s house, and take control of communication between the children.
In a closely-knit society where both authorities and neighbors are constantly watching you and your kids, such parental control over children’s social life is unnecessary.
Indeed, children can sometimes make bad friends, but the worst possible danger is hanging with an F-grade classmate and secretly smoking their father’s cigarettes together.
Contact with heavy drugs, crime, or early sexual contact is problematic in the environment where Big Brother is watching you in the form of your teacher, the leader of the people’s group, or the neighbor granny sunbathing in her yard.
Sure enough, living in a city poses other dangers, the most poignant of which is increasing traffic.
North Koreans teach children to cope with this challenge independently through intensive road safety education. Recently, “socialist morality” school textbooks for first- and second-year students have included a special chapter devoted to behavior on the road; an old TV serial called “Let’s Protect the Rules of Traffic” has been supplemented with dynamic chapters about new problems such as inline skaters on the street.
When I first saw the American comedy “Mrs. Doubtfire” many years ago, it took me some time to grasp the point of the film.
I just couldn’t understand why kids who in my eyes, as someone who grew up in the old Soviet Union, were old enough to be looking after themselves and their younger siblings needed a nanny.
In Soviet society, with most parents working from 9 to 6, children learned to be independent from a very early age.
The average 7-year-old would carry a house key hung on a necklace so that after school he can come home, heat his dinner on the stove, and do basic chores like dishwashing, buying bread, or sweeping the floor.
Indeed, children grow up differently in Western and socialist societies.
While first-world children dress like adults, watch ‘family’ movies stuffed with adult innuendos, and listen to songs with adult content, they are actually kept outside of the real life of a grownup until their early 20s.
Peter Pan-like lives last well into the teens. Almost fully-grown children are safely cocooned in a special teenage culture, complete with the burning issues of braces, pimples, and non-conformist hairstyles.
Revolting against demands from parents to clean their rooms and do their homework is just an expected part of Western adolescence, and parents are taught to meekly accept this. Other social responsibilities are out of the question.
The West’s Peter Pan-lifestyle is a luxury of the rich world
In contrast, children in North Korean society wear children’s dress and are only exposed to children’s culture until the end of middle school.
At the same time, growing up in North Korea goes along with an increasing load of social and household work. While helping parents, children learn useful skills and make personal developments which are considered essential for the child.
North Korean mass culture warns parents against raising kwidungja (귀둥자), pampered children who lack work skills and grow up soft, unprepared for life and unhappy.
The reason for this child-rearing approach is primarily economic: the West’s Peter Pan-lifestyle is a luxury of the rich world.
You cannot afford mollycoddled kids for too long in a society with a present-day GDP per capita of 1,214 dollars. They have to grow up quickly and be ready to look after themselves.
NO CATCHER IN THE RYE
Disobedient children in North Korean books or films are never portrayed positively. A young troublemaker never looks cute in breaking the rules, and children are never shown as asserting themselves or struggling against the mores of the conservative establishment.
A child’s naughtiness only signals a pedagogical mistake and insufficient parental involvement.
North Korean social culture lacks the concept of youth rebellion. It simply does not assume that adults love you and wish you best — it actually insists that adults are you. You and your parents are the same. You share the same core values.
Actually, parental authority is not only endorsed by state propaganda but seems to even be accepted by the majority of North Koreans. Few of them dare to argue with their parents’ decisions concerning choosing a career or partner.
In a totalitarian society, family is your only reliable social connection, a real anchor, on which you can trust and depend. Peers and partners can betray you under social pressure; parents and siblings can not.
PARTICIPATION IN THE LIFE OF THE NATION
Involvement in social projects is considered an equally important part of raising children in North Korea. The idea of national unity remains at the core of the North Korean worldview, and children, as part of the nation, are habitually involved in national projects.
North Korean children’s films and books are devoted to the same topics as mass culture for adults, although they’re delivered in language and imagery which is clearer to kids. Here are a few examples of popular movies for children:
“Children Guerillas” (sonyeon palchisan), 1950, “Child Young Guards” (sonyeon keunuidae), 1985 – films about children heroes of anti-American resistance.
“Little Heroes of Korea” (choseon sonyeonyeongungdeul), 2017 – a show about children heroes of anti-Japanese resistance.
“Story of 15 Children” (yeoltaseot sonyeone taehan iyagi), 1985 – a film about children who survived on an uninhabited island due to their determination, helping each other out, and good survival skills.
“Boy General” (sonyeon changsu), 1987, “Boy Who Destroyed Pirates” (tojeokeul cheopusin sonyeon), 1985, “A Boy Who Took Revenge against his Enemies” (uenssu kapeun sonyeon), 2007 – cartoons about child warriors in history.
“Children Researchers” (sonyeon tamguja) 2013 – a TV serial about children science researchers.
“The Lawn of our Brigade” (uri pundan chandipat), 2016 – a cartoon about children planting street lawns.
“Rabbits of our House” (uri chip tokki iyagi), 2017 – a cartoon about children raising rabbits.
All these materials teach a child that even at an early age he or she is quite capable of participating in society. A child’s physical limitations and lack of life experience can be compensated by an eager desire to learn from adults and, most importantly, by their industriousness — the major virtue of the poor.
THE ANTS AND THE GRASSHOPPERS
In “State of mind” (2000), a documentary about the daily life of two young North Korean gymnasts, BBC correspondent Daniel Gordon strives to keep a neutral stance toward the stressful life of the two stars of the Arirang Mass Games.
Gordon admits that his heroines pour all their efforts into the intensive training voluntarily; yet, the girls are driven, he stresses, by the ideologically motivated desire to make the Leader happy.
But all that hard work was for nothing, as the leader did not even come to one of the performances for which the girls prepared so hard for.
However, the documentary seems to miss one point: Even if the girls’ efforts are indeed dedicated to “making the leader happy,” they are rewarded quite well in material terms.
In the eyes of those from the first world, all this looks like child abuse
Performing leading roles in the Arirang Mass Games is a privilege, a promise of a lucrative personal career to students who are not exceptional academically.
Brutal exercises and a harsh training schedule during childhood will save the girls from the drab and physically tiresome path typical of those with no university education.
The same is true of the little performers on the above-mentioned YouTube videos.
Horrified Western viewers often forget that these kids are the winners in the relentless competition for a place under the sun in a harsh and poor society in which only a thin layer of elites can live comfortably.
In South Korea, calls to education ‘education fever’ and let kids enjoy their childhood more freely may be justifiable, since the difference is would only be between a regular good life and spectacular success. But in North Korea, the stakes are very different.
This is the choice of the Ant and the Grasshopper in Aesop’s fable. Either you endlessly practice your guitar skills and go on to have a nice life as a performer in the state orchestra, or you dawdle in your childhood and become a miner or potato farmer on reclaimed land.
North Korean kids know this story as the tale of Lazy Raccoon and Smart Badger, and are taught that laziness is suicidal.
NORTH KOREANS LOVE THEIR CHILDREN TOO
Freedom to walk and communicate with friends, numerous chores and closeness to parents, harsh work and discipline: all the freedoms and restrictions of North Korean childhood are the objective consequences of social reality and the economic model of the DPRK.
North Korean teachers and parents do not enslave their kids: they only teach them the best ways to survive in their environment.
After all, they love their children, too.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: NK News
The idea of a happy childhood, and of children being "the only kings of the country," is a core concept in North Korean propaganda.Official media brags about free school education and afterschool activities, free medical service, school uniform and textbooks distributed by the state, well-organized orphanages, and the absence of corporal punishments in North Korean schools.Almost none of
Tatiana Gabroussenko obtained her PhD in East Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She is currently a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, Seoul. Her latest book Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the early history of North Korean literature and literary policy, was included in the Choice magazine list of Outstanding Academic Titles of 2012.