By Andrei Lankov
Everybody who has spent time in South Korea knows all too well that a child's education is given the highest priority by most Korean families. Nor is this a peculiarity of South Korea. The greatest respect for education is shared by a majority of ethnic Koreans worldwide and it is not coincidental that most countries which have large Korean communities boast Koreans among the best educated of their ethnic groups.
North Korea is no exception _ its people also take education very seriously. Once upon a time, the success of the North Korean educational policy was one of the factors that made the nascent Communist regime attractive to many. Indeed, the educational development of the late 1940s was one of Pyongyang's towering achievements. Perhaps this is one of the few genuine achievements of which the new Communist regime can really boast.
When the Communists took power in the North, the picture looked quite grim. In 1944, just before Liberation, the vast majority (86.2 percent) of Koreans had no formal education whatsoever. Of the remaining 13.8 percent, about half, or 7.4 percent, had attended only primary school. The literacy level in North Korea (and in 1945 the North was better educated than the South) was estimated at 58 percent. In other words, almost half of North Koreans could not read or write.
In 1946 North Korea launched an ambitious campaign to ``eradicate illiteracy.'' This campaign emulated the similar Soviet campaign of the early 1930s. The powerful regional committees of the NKWP (the North Korean version of the Communist Party) were held directly responsible for eradicating illiteracy on ``their'' territories. Many thousands of people, mostly teachers, were sent to teach illiterates in part-time teaching centers. Special programs were devised to meet the demands of the adult students and incidentally, also to use this opportunity to run crash courses in political indoctrination. In villages and small towns, campaign activists visited house after house to check the literacy level of the inhabitants, and special efforts were made to press the illiterates into attending classes.
This approach proved to be very effective. The pressure of the mighty Party machine and its ability to mobilize the cheap labor of teachers and instructors made it possible to achieve impressive results within a short space of time. In 1949, two and a half years after the launch of the campaign, the North Korean government officially declared that it had achieved full literacy among adults between 15 and 50 years of age! Certainly, this claim cannot be taken at face value. What this really meant was that a majority of illiterates had passed through the educational centers and had learned something, but probably not very much. Nevertheless, nobody would deny that in 1950, North Korea was much better educated than in 1945.
The success with ``illiteracy eradication'' was mirrored by a rapid development of formal schooling. Over the period 1945-1950, the number of primary schools increased threefold from 1,372 to 3,882, and the number of students doubled. With high schools the progress was even more striking. In 1945, North Korea had a mere 50 high schools with 17 thousand students. After five years, the number of schools increased twenty-two fold to 1,103, while the number of students reached 419 thousand! Needless to say, this increase was frequently accompanied by a decline in the quality of education _ the lack of qualified personnel and teaching materials was acute. Nevertheless, it was a success.
The North Korean tertiary education system was created virtually from scratch in 1945-1950. In 1945 there was not a single university or 4-year college north of the 38th parallel, whereas in 1949 there were 15 newly established colleges and universities, which enrolled some 12 thousand students.
The obvious success of the Communist regime in education was one of the reasons why many South Korean intellectuals moved northward in 1945-1950. They were disappointed with the South Korean government, had leftist sympathies, and believed that Kim Il-sung and his regime would be better for the common Korean. These highbrow defectors contributed much to North Korean intellectual life. However, when things turned sour in the mid-1950s, most of them were forced to pay dearly for their illusions. Many of these idealists perished in the prison camps during the purges of the 1950s. But that is another story…