Fri, Jul 27, 2018 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Lessons in loyalty at North Korea’s top school

AFP, PYONGYANG

Students attend a biology class at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School outside Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 14.

Photo: AFP

Not many schools have classrooms equipped with tanks, jet fighter simulators and grenade launchers, but North Korea’s Mangyongdae Revolutionary School for boys is no ordinary establishment.

Originally set up by North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, to educate the orphans of those killed in the fight against Japanese colonial rule, it has evolved to become the nation’s top school and one of the institutions that knits the ruling elite together.

A bronze statue of Kim and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, embracing pupils overlooks the playing field, and the corridors are lined with weapons identification posters.

One room is crammed with small arms, another holds a tank with moving caterpillar tracks and shooting is a key subject, with training taking place on an electronic range.

The 1,000 shaven-headed boys wear a military-style uniform said to have been designed by Kim Il-sung’s mother, Kang Pan-sok, a red line down their pants symbolizing their devotion to the cause of revolution.

After graduating, they will all go into the military.

There are six 45-minute classes a day, with half of the curriculum devoted to politics and ideology, almost one-quarter on military subjects and the rest for traditional academic disciplines.

Afternoons are reserved for physical activities, with the boys screaming encouragement in the weight room of the well-equipped gym or performing impressive topless taekwondo tumbles.

A girls’ school named after Kang stands in the Pyongyang suburb of Chilgol, where she was born.

The schools are a Kim family project: the North’s founder visited 118 times, his wife 62 times, their son 94 times and his son, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — who was educated in Switzerland — has been six times so far.

“The Supreme Leader comrade Kim Jong-un is the true parent of all our revolutionary schoolchildren,” said Lieutenant Choe Su-gyong, a guide to the school museum, where photographs show then-Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and then-Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu visiting, as well as then-Benin president Mathieu Kerekou, whose sons attended.

With the Japanese colonial period now decades in the past, entry into the school has been broadened to those who have at least one parent or grandparent deemed to have been a loyal servant of the state.

Beyond the Kim family, the top echelons of North Korean society are a self-perpetuating ruling class.

“The North Korean elite is remarkably closed to outsiders; it is hereditary to a degree which would be inconceivable in any other communist country,” Korea Risk Group director Andrei Lankov said.

Pyongyang says its citizens are equals, but classifies them by sociopolitical background according to a hereditary system known as songbun, with loyalty to the authorities a crucial factor.

Only those with good songbun can expect to secure a place at a top university or permission to live in Pyongyang, although the advent of private business is now opening up opportunities for others.

When the school was founded in the early days of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it copied the Soviet Union’s Suvorov military schools for veterans’ orphans.

At the time, there were four main factions in the ruling Workers’ Party: the partisans who had fought alongside Kim Il-sung, domestic communists, those who had been exiled in China and Soviet Koreans.

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