Class sizes in North Korea are shrinking as more women become breadwinners

Women are reluctant to have kids because they need to work to support families
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
Class sizes in North Korea are shrinking as more women become breadwinners New students have their first lesson at the Minhung Primary School in Moranbong district in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, April 1, 2023.

As students filed into their elementary classrooms this week across North Korea for the start of the school year, entering class sizes in cities were noticeably smaller, a reflection of the declining birthrate in the country as more women become breadwinners to support their families, sources in the country said.

The trend appears to be making authorities nervous, a person who works in education in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Yesterday we welcomed the newly enrolled students at Toksong Elementary School, but there were not many new students,” he said. “Ten years ago, we used to divide the new, incoming students into four or five separate classes, but each year the number of new students decreases. So there are only three classes [of first graders] this year.”

Each of the three classes has about 30 students in this particular school. But other city schools seem to be seeing the same pattern, although it is less noticeable in rural areas, where families are larger. 

That’s down from as many as 45 children per classroom in the 1980s, which then dwindled steadily over the years since then.

Female breadwinners

Demographics and economics are driving the trend.

The decline is directly related to more women working and becoming the main source of income for their families, according to a North Korean escapee using the pseudonym Kim Hak-myong, who worked as a high school teacher for 20 years until he fled the country in 2015.

Most North Korean men are in government-assigned jobs, and receive paltry salaries that are not enough to support their families. 

So their wives have had to start side businesses, such as setting up stalls in markets to sell food or other items – which now bring in far more money than most of their husbands.

That’s made it harder for women to bear and raise children.

New students take part in a ceremony for the start of the school year at the Minhung Primary School in Moranbong district in Pyongyang, North Korea, Saturday, April 1, 2023. Credit: AP

In cities such as Pyongsong, South Pyongan’s provincial capital, nine out of 10 women were running businesses in the marketplace and serving as their families’ breadwinners, the first source said. 

“With more women running these businesses, they tend to give birth to only one child,” he said. “If you have a lot of children, you will be pushed out of the market by the competition and it will be difficult to make a living.”

North Korea’s birth rate last year was about 1.9 children per woman, just below the replacement rate of 2.1 births, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s 2022 State of the World Population Report. That’s down from around 4 births per woman in the 1970s, and 2.3 births per woman in the 1990s.

‘Only one child’

The government used to provide food subsidies for families with more children, but now that these subsidies have stopped, women are choosing to have only one child, or two at the most, a second source living in the northwestern province of North Pyongan said.

“These days the government simply tells people to have more kids and doesn’t provide any food, so women who have to work to feed their families are giving up on childbirth to focus on business,” she said. “Because of this reality, the number of students enrolled in elementary school is decreasing.” 

When she went to the local elementary school on April 1 to congratulate her nephew on his first day of school, she was surprised at the small class sizes. 

“Five years ago, when my daughter entered [the same] school, there were about 80 students enrolling, but this year there were about 60 students,” she said. “The educational authorities are also paying attention to how much this year’s decrease will be.”  

Intensifying competition

Kim, the escapee and former educator, said that the shrinking class size became visible in the 2010s, “as women began to establish their businesses in the marketplace, [new students] began to decrease noticeably.”

Also, more young women are enlisting in the military, and avoiding giving birth because it costs a lot to raise even one child properly, he said.

The shrinking enrollment has led to competition among families to get their kids into the good schools, Kim said.

“Originally, you were supposed to go to the school near your home,” he said. “But now, when there’s a [highly skilled] math teacher at a good school, the number of students goes up because more students flock toward that school.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.


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