North Korea Orders Nationwide School Renovations, Sends Bill to Parents

Schools cancel afternoon classes so students can collect sand and gravel.
2021-06-28
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North Korea Orders Nationwide School Renovations, Sends Bill to Parents Primary school children wearing face masks as a protective measure against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus arrive for a class at Hasin Primary School in Sosong District in Pyongyang following the re-opening of schools on June 3, 2020
AFP

North Korea has ordered universities and schools nationwide to renovate old, crumbling buildings and modernize their classrooms, but the funding, labor, and materials for each school is the responsibility of the students and their families, sources in the country told RFA.

Forcing citizens to “volunteer” to work on government projects or “donate” money and materials to finance and supply them is common practice in North Korea, but sources said that the school modernization project not only disrupts learning patterns, it is an undue burden on families with school age children.

The plan is the product of the Eighth Party Congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in January, when the country’s leader Kim Jong Un ordered the state to take necessary steps to become self-sufficient. For the education sector, this meant schools were due for renovations and updating.

“Educational authorities have begun refurbishing buildings at high schools and universities nationwide, but the expenses and labor responsibilities have been transferred to parents and students,” a resident of North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast told RFA’s Korean Service June 24.

“The project is intended to implement the decisions of the Eighth Party Congress and the Provincial Party Committee is overseeing it. The committee is saying that the old buildings will be renovated, but most of them are so old that they need to be demolished and rebuilt,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Schools have begun holding classes only in the morning, so that students’ afternoons can be spent hauling gravel and sand to make concrete, according to the source.

“Each person has a daily quota of 130 gallons of gravel and sand they have to secure, and there’s a review session for the day’s work at the end of each day,” the source said.

“To get gravel and sand, they have to go to the river, but since the river isn’t close by, they cannot carry it all back themselves. So, they have to pool their money so they can rent a car and haul it back to the school. Essentially this means the complete burden of preparation of construction materials, funding and labor is on the students and their parents,” said the source.

The students and their families must also provide lunch for construction workers, according to the source.

“They take turns by designating a date for each class,” the source said.

“When each class’s turn comes up, all the students need to prepare a boxed lunch at home and bring it to the school, and this is further increasing the burden on the parents,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang confirmed to RFA the same day that the project was underway there as well.

“School authorities are demanding that each student donate 50,000 won (U.S. $9) so that each classroom can have a computer and TV,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

The Korea Joongang Daily reported in 2018 that each citizen earns a monthly government salary of about 4,000 won per month, less than 10 percent of the amount that the Ryanggang students are expected to contribute.

Additionally, the country’s economy is under severe stress because of international nuclear sanctions and the suspension of trade with China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020.

Students are hounded to “donate” to their schools even as the UN warns that a major food crisis may be looming, and the North Korean government has told its people to prepare for the worst.

“There are only a few students who are willing to donate such a large amount of money in the midst of this food crisis, so schools are nagging them every day to pay, and those who can’t afford it are reluctant to even come to school,” said the second source.

“There is a growing resentment among the residents over the authorities’ passing the buck to the people. Some of the residents say things like ‘They proudly boast about the strength of North Korean socialism and our free education system whenever they get a chance, but what is there to brag about when they put the cost of renovating school buildings on the students and their parents?’” said the second source.

According to both sources, the renovation projects in North Hamgyong and Ryannggang will also include elementary and middle schools, but there is no clear date set for when the project will be complete.

According to UNESCO statistics, North Korea has 5.8 million students in primary, secondary or tertiary education, slightly more than a fifth of its total population.

Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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