North Korea has ordered a nationwide survey to identify and educate the country’s illiterates, most of whom missed school during widespread famine in the 1990s, sources in the country told RFA.
Known in North Korea as the “Arduous March,” the 1994-1998 famine killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the country’s population by some estimates. More than 20 years later, many who were unable to attend school during the humanitarian crisis are still unable to read.
Sources said that the illiterates are resisting reading lessons, and the government has warned officials in every organization that they will be held responsible for teaching members to read.
“On the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party’s] instructions, a survey project began nationwide in November to identify residents who do not know the Korean alphabet,” a source in North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast on the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“They are conducting the survey in all agencies, companies, cooperative farms and special units, even in the armed forces,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
According to UNESCO statistics, North Korea’s population participates in primary and secondary education at a rate near 90 percent, and near 100 percent of its population is literate.
But during the Arduous March, participation was much lower, because people were struggling to survive, according to the source.
“Many North Koreans entered society without attending school because they were doing other things while they were trying to stay alive during the Arduous March,” the source said.
“The Central Committee realized that an inability to read and write our language is a serious problem and ordered a countermeasure campaign,” said the source.
Though the government says it is eradicating illiteracy, the hard work of identifying and teaching the illiterates lies with each organization.
“After work every day, they teach them how to read and write, but many of them are refusing to learn, so the teaching staff are having a hard time,” the source said.
“The Central Committee has warned that those in charge of organizations with many illiterates that they will be held responsible for their ‘lack of effort’ in reeducating those who couldn’t attend school due to various circumstances during the Arduous March,” said the source.
Meanwhile the armed forces are focusing their efforts on soldiers and their family members who were born in the 1990s, according to a military source stationed to the north of Pyongyang in South Pyongan province.
“The party is urging us to eradicate illiteracy as soon as possible by intensely teaching the Korean alphabet as necessary in each unit. But this is easier said than done in the middle of a serious economic crisis,” the source said.
North Korea’s economic fortunes have spiraled downward since Pyongyang and Beijing shut down the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January.
Prior to the pandemic the economy had already been struggling under U.S. and UN sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.
The North Korean famine -- the result of economic mismanagement and the collapse of North Korea's patron the Soviet Union -- has caused lasting harm to the nation's educational system, according to a 2019 report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
“The public education system, like the healthcare system, was deeply strained by the decade of crisis in the 1990s. School authorities began to pass education costs on to children and their parents in the form of “mini assignments,” the report said, referring to the practice of assigning students to bring material goods to school for sale or trade to support either the teacher’s salaries or trade for resources, such as fuel, that schools need to operate.
“Educational development and children’s potential remain stunted by a curriculum that prioritizes political indoctrination and unswerving loyalty to the regime, and the punishment of those who deviate,” the report said.
Additionally, the report cited a 1998 nutritional survey, conducted by UNICEF and the World Food Program, which found that among children in 3,600 North Korean households, 62.3 percent were stunted, and 60.6 percent were considered moderately or severely underweight.
Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.