I suspect it will come as a surprise to many that North Korea has a 100% literacy rate. In North Korea everyone receives twelve years (extended from eleven in 2012) of full time, state funded, education – from kindergarten to high school. After this there is the option to go to university and other institutes of higher learning. Education in North Korea focuses on preparing students for the workforce (including the military) and aims at not only advancing the prospects of each student but also those of the country, consistent with its Juche, or self-reliance, ideology. There is a significant focus on foreign languages, science and technology but this is not at the expense of the arts, culture and sports.
Yes, lessons include the revolutionary history of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Juche morality and philosophy and, particularly in the north-east including Hoeryong, the heroic deeds of Kim Jong-suk’. The amount of time actually spent on these and similar subjects is significantly less than some imagine and probably no more than that consumed by marginal value subjects and activities in other countries.
The mainstream education system is supplemented by a system of People’s Study Houses for adults and what are referred to as Children’s Palaces for children still of school age. The Grand People’s Study House and the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, both in Pyongyang, are the largest and grandest of these institutions. Others, while still impressive, are significantly smaller and offer a more limited range of subjects and facilities.
The Leaders of North Korea have always understood the value of education and have thus ensured that everyone is appropriately educated, from the cradle to the grave.
The purpose of Children’s Palaces is the same country-wide, to provide extracurricular activities for children, with the added advantage that their mothers can engage in “work, political and cultural activities.” While all children are eligible to attend classes and other activities the Palaces are very clearly places for the most gifted and/or the privileged elite. Here in Hoeryong this means the children of Party officials and those of the nouveau riche who have made their money through cross border trade with China. Many parents would fall into both categories.
The Hoeryong Children’s Palace, which we visited, opened in 2017. I don’t know if it replaced an earlier one or not. Externally it is the grandest looking building in Hoeryong but interestingly it lacked the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il normally found on the exterior of public buildings. The picture below is from exploredprk.com. While there was, as far as I know, no ban on taking pictures of the building there was a prohibition on going down the steps in front of the building or into the square, also depicted below, to take a picture!
Internally, at least in the areas we visited, there were also very few pictures, etc of the Leaders. In fact I can only recall one painting, in the entry foyer, of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with a group of happy children standing outside the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, donning their Young Pioneer neck scarves. Outside this I only saw one North Korean flag and a few inspirational (?) quotations (I am presuming by the Leaders) adorning the walls of some of the rooms.
The chariot in the picture above, and in the Leaderless picture below, is the ‘Chariot of Joy.’ It carries numerous jubilant children dressed in their future working attire. So we have a soldier, a musician, a metalworker and an astronaut among other professions represented. The actual bronze chariot monument outside the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang has eleven children in it who, at the time it was constructed, represented the eleven years of mandatory education received by all children in North Korea. I can only count nine in the picture below. Perhaps a few are hidden around the back or have fallen off.
Typically in these Children’s Palaces the activities on offer include music, singing, dancing, foreign language tuition, computing, calligraphy, painting, board games, swimming, gymnastics, martial arts, and various other forms of sport, to name but a few. Actually, the sorts of things children used to do in other countries when they did not have access to televisions, PlayStations, Xboxes or the Internet!
Here we saw various music, singing and dancing classes together with a mini dance show put on for us and watched a little volleyball in a well equipped gymnasium. Alas, my pictures are of poorer quality than I had hoped for but this can be, partially, blamed on the evening sun shining directly into all the rooms and the gymnasium we visited.
I have been to a few of these Children’s Palaces now and the one thing all the children have in common is that they are absolutely fantastic proponents of their chosen activity. These children are extremely talented and perform at a level that most children elsewhere could only hope to aspire too, at a much higher age.
While the children would have to have some form of natural talent for what they do, there is no doubt the standards achieved here could only be achieved with countless hours of practice and perhaps some level of enticement/coercion, depending on your point of view. Many people leave these palaces with the view that the children are forced to perform and are being indoctrinated against their wills and that this is evidenced by the clearly fake smiles on the children’s faces. I ask, is this any different than children’s pageant shows and the like in many countries outside North Korea?
Talking of fake smiles and indeed the genuine ones which also exist there were a marked reduction in both in 2018 compared to my previous visit in 2014 and in the palaces we visited in 2018, including here in Hoeryong, the children looked rather glum and uninterested. Perhaps the impact of mobile phones and the wide selection of games (yes, including shot the enemy ones!) that an increasing number of children, especially the better off ones like these, now have access to is beginning to take its toll. Also, to be fair to these particular children, we did turn up rather late in the evening and we may have been holding them back from other things – like their mobile phones!
Our lateness may also have explained the lack of a main show in the Palace’s purpose built auditorium though that didn’t especially disappoint me as I have seen a number of these extraordinary shows now and I too had other things on my mind – i.e. dinner.
This is my last North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong review
Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hoeryong reviews – HERE