About the Author
View more articles by In-hua Kim
In-hua Kim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. She left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Hello there readers, we hope you’re all doing well and keeping healthy amid all the coronavirus lockdowns.
Welcome back to Ask a North Korean — the NK News feature where you can, well, ask a North Korean your questions about life on the ground in the DPRK.
This week’s question is from Marcia in Indianola, Mississippi, who asks about bullying in North Korea.
Just like everywhere else in the world, there are bullies in North Korean schools as well. But how does bullying differ from other countries? How does the North’s situation compare to that in the South?
In-hua Kim, who herself attended school in North Korea and whose children also graduated from school while still in the country, provides us with her experiences below.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Schools are places where students ought to be able to broaden their horizons. But in North Korea, many children lack money, clothes, and even shoes, let alone the stationary necessary for their schoolwork.
These children are bullied by their peers from better-off families. Those who leave school in tears and eventually quit altogether, against the wishes of their parents, are growing in number.
I attended school in the North Korea of the 1980s, when the state had implemented a system of “11 years of compulsory socialist education.” Under Kim Il Sung, the first ruler of North Korea and current leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, students received tuition-free education and were distributed uniforms and stationery from the state free of charge.
All families, big or small, were able to send their children to school, and there were no orphans wandering the streets.
There was no bullying during this time. Nor was there such a wealth gap between the students.
If some of the more conceited students teased or hit the weaker students, the parents would be called into school and the perpetrators would be firmly told off.
In the Kim Il Sung era, as well as in today’s North Korea, students are not punished if they do something wrong. Instead, they receive criticism from the whole class at the weekly self and mutual criticism session (saenghwalch’onghwa) on Saturday, and that will be it.
The North Korea of the 1980s was the envy of the entire world. My parents, and other families as well, had no worries when it came to providing their children an education.
This was part of the reason why the people of North Korea were in such agony when Kim Il Sung died in 1994.
However, the “11 years of compulsory socialist education” system began to disappear following the hereditary succession of his son, Kim Jong Il.
With North Korea now facing what is known as the “Arduous March,” life in the country was becoming more and more difficult.
Despite this, the Kim Jong Il, and also today’s Kim Jong Un regime, carried out a great many construction projects all over the country.
These large-scale construction projects appear to have used up more funding than expected though, and the authorities began to go to the factories and even the schools to collect more money.
The students from my neighborhood in Hyesan City attended Songbong Elementary School. If they were unable to donate to the projects, they would be sent home by their teacher and told to come back with the money.
The frustrated parents of these children, who didn’t even have the money to buy rice, told their kids not to go back to these schools.
On the other hand, the families that had a penny to spare not only gave this money but also food and funds to the homeroom teachers on a monthly basis. These provisions allowed the teachers to get by during this difficult time.
The children from poor families who actually went to school only ended up getting bullied by groups of other students. They would often go home crying and venting their frustration to their parents, but the bullies were never punished.
If angry parents went to the school to complain, the teacher would simply say it was the child’s own fault they got the beating.
When the teacher apologized to the parents of the student who had been beaten, that was it. This was, of course, because the richer families of the bullies were providing the teachers with those necessities.
The teacher would rather beg for forgiveness from the parents of the poorer child than punish the child of the richer parents.
In North Korea, many children lack money, clothes, and even shoes, let alone the stationary necessary for their schoolwork
If a student was seriously injured in a gang fight though, the culprits would not escape heavy punishment, even if they were minors.
For example, there was the incident that occurred in 1979, when I was attending Kangan Middle School in Hyesan City.
Led by the class president, a group of rough students attacked a classmate who was missing a lot of lessons — he was living with his single mother at the time, who was sick and needed somebody to look after her at home.
Instead of teaching their lesson that day, the homeroom teacher ordered the entire class to go to the home of this student and bring him back to school.
On the way to the boy’s house, the angry class bumped into him as he was running an errand for his mother. The class president grabbed his arm and told him to get back to school.
“My mother is sick,” the boy, bewildered, explained. “I’m going to get her medicine. I’ll be at school tomorrow.”
The class president, who despised the boy for having the gall to be going around town when he should’ve been at school, didn’t want to hear his excuses.
The group attacked the boy, and he flew back at them. But he was beaten so badly that they actually killed him.
When the boy showed no signs of life, the class president and the others chose not to go back to school and instead scattered and fled. There are lots of little alleyways in the area he was killed, so there were no witnesses.
The boy’s mother, realizing that her son had not returned after she had sent him to buy medicine for her, went out to search for him. Eventually, she found his bloody body collapsed on the ground.
It was the middle of the day, but her wails and calls for help resonated throughout that quiet neighborhood alleyway.
Hearing the mother’s cries, a crowd began to gather. One student from the class, who was confused and didn’t know the full situation, returned to the scene in search of the boy, worried about what had happened to him.
With a fearful voice, this student told the adults what they knew. Some from the furious crowd carried the mother away, who had fainted with her son in her arms. Others headed with the student to the school with a police officer.
The homeroom teacher was accused of not properly educating his students, leading them to commit murder, and was dismissed. Five students were sent to a re-education camp for youths — the class president was sentenced to ten years.
After he was released, the then-27-year-old man was unable to marry and spent his days working in Wiyon Lumber Mill. He had studied hard with the intention of going on to university, but had against his better judgment committed murder and ruined his life.
This incident was reported directly to Kim Il Sung by the Ryanggang Province police department. After that, student gang fights and school violence was targeted and harshly clamped down on.
Bullying nowadays continues to less often occur in the form of gang fighting and more often involves students from poor families being bullied and ostracized.
Bullying in South Korea is more extreme. North Korean bullying amounts to simply not playing, talking, or studying with other students.
My children graduated from school in North Korea before defecting. I’m relieved that they don’t go through the kinds of cruel and varied kinds of bullying disadvantaged kids do in South Korean movies and dramas.
I hope that South Korean society takes more interest in this problem and makes efforts to prevent the bullying and violence that happens in the country’s schools.
Edited by James Fretwell
Hello there readers, we hope you're all doing well and keeping healthy amid all the coronavirus lockdowns.
Welcome back to Ask a North Korean -- the NK News feature where you can, well, ask a North Korean your questions about life on the ground in the DPRK.