Since 1959, the North Korean government has applied free education at all levels. University students are also eligible for scholarships.
The country switched from the 11-grade curriculum to the 12-grade system in 2012.
The previous 11-year high school system comprised one kindergarten year, four elementary school years and six high school years.
By contrast, the current curriculum includes one kindergarten year, five elementary school years, three junior high school years and three senior high school years.
As the new school year commences on April 1 every year, classes of the previous year conclude before March.
The time marks the end of hibernation on the Korean Peninsula, ushering in warmth, thriving vegetation and vibrancy.
Emphasis on children
Schools in North Korea run youth unions the same way their Vietnamese counterparts do.
Elementary schools across the country operate chapters of the young pioneer organization like Vietnam and China, while its students move on to the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League once they start taking higher grades.
North Korea is believed to put special emphasis on children, at least those in Pyongyang, the country’s capital and largest city.
Kim Il-sung, the highly revered North Korean supreme leader, and other dignitaries have made it a point to provide children with the best conditions, according to former Vietnamese Ambassador to North Korea Le Quang Ba.
This explains why costly facilities designed for children including cultural centers and beautifully designed kindergartens have popped up.
While showing Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters around the Pyongyang Children's Palace during their recent trip to North Korea, tour guide Choe Un Mi, confirmed the government’s particular attention to children, adding that the edifice welcomes up to 5,000 student arrivals each day.
The children take academic classes in the morning, and go to the palace to practice a particular art or sport in the afternoon.
The journalists, who pondered over whether the special attention is given to other groups of children within the capital city or other areas, were taken to extracurricular classes in the keyboard, flute, drums, ballet, embroidery, calligraphy and sports.
The classes were originally thought to be ‘staged’ as a warm welcome to the institution.
However, the journalists dropped the assumption shortly after watching the minors’ performances, which displayed outstanding skill and great finesse.
University education in North Korea has also experienced reform.
An officer of the Vietnamese Embassy in North Korea graduated from Kim Il-sung University, located in Pyongyang, two years ago.
The hospital meant for foreigners in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Photo: Tuoi Tre
He said he had followed a reformed four-year university curriculum intended for foreigners.
The officer took literature, Korean and English language classes during his first and second years, and geography, history, computer and math as a junior, and subjects of his major as a senior.
There are five or six subjects each semester, he added.
Upon their graduation, international students can choose to take a three-year master’s in economics course or a two-year linguistics master’s program.
It takes them another three years to complete their PhD program.
The current university curriculum does not include several politics-related subjects as it did in the past. The North Korean Juche and Constitution are studied in one semester only to give students a glimpse, instead of an in-depth look, into the East Asian nation’s political situation, the Vietnamese diplomatic officer noted.
The reform may come as a surprise to those who studied in Pyongyang previously, when international students took the same university programs as their native counterparts.
According to former Vietnamese Ambassador to North Korea Duong Chinh Thuc, the East Asian country’s current curriculum bears similarities to those adopted in Vietnam in the past, which were modeled on the former Soviet Union’s curriculum.
There are programs offered in Russian, and students are encouraged to pick up a Russian accent.
Pham Ngoc Canh, a Vietnamese man who spent several years studying at the Hamhung University of Chemical Industry, said his four-year university program “was laden with politics-related subjects.”
“The subjects dealt with the history of the Workers' Party of North Korea, venerated leader Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary involvement and feats, his familial background as well as his anthologies. Philosophy was all about the highly respected Kim,” he recalled.
Until now state agency staff all work in the office on Saturday mornings and go to political classes on Saturday afternoons.
Such classes focus on boosting the Party’s combat power and integrity, extolling exemplary Party members and criticizing vices, according to another diplomatic officer.
He added that even shop assistants at supermarkets are often seen learning political content by heart on leaflets during their free time at work.
Free medical care
Since 1953 North Korea has implemented a free-of-charge medical care policy on officials and staff at state agencies.
Medical care has been offered for free to all citizens since around 1960.
A diplomatic officer of a Southeast Asian country who is working in Pyongyang observed that the policy works well in theory, but undesirable stories remain in practice.
He listed at least three weaknesses of the North Korean medical system, namely a shortage of medication, as hospitals are seriously lacking in Western medicine, while being abundant in alternative Oriental medicinal herbs.
Medical equipment is obsolete and inefficient, while doctors do not do a good job and lack access to the world’s state-of-the-art health care technology.
Intriguingly, a considerable number of women in the capital of Pyongyang have undergone cosmetic surgeries on their eyelids and the bridges of their noses to improve their looks.
A source revealed that the service is also provided free-of-charge, though the recipients’ social status and background remains unknown.
The government also sets aside a hospital for foreigners in the Munsu-dong Diplomatic Compound in Taedonggang District, Pyongyang, where most embassies are located.
The hospital is not large and has a timeworn look, but is quite clean and well equipped.
The facility has a two-floor block for outpatients and a three-story block for inpatients nearby.
All foreigners are required to seek medical attention from this hospital and are denied access to any other clinic throughout the capital.
The hospital would previously provide free treatment for expats, who are now exempt from checkup fees, but have been paying for their own medicine over the past few years.