The government of North Korea is reintroducing a policy of offering free preschool classes to its rural citizens over a 10-day period in spring. But sources say the move is not out of benevolence—it is to prevent mothers from using their young children as an excuse to get out of being mobilized as farm labor ahead of the spring planting season.
The program, first introduced in the 1960s, has always been about the mobilization of mothers. In years past, local childcare centers were open to the public between the first and 11th day of the month that coincides with planting season.
Local markets are also closed during the same period. But most of the preschools had been shut down due to lack of funding or as a result of the widespread famine and series of economic crises between 1994 and 1998, now called the March of Suffering.
Estimates have put the death toll from starvation over the four-year period in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions.
Local sources told RFA’s Korean Service that the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party has ordered the reopening of the preschools this year, but many of the rural collective farms are having difficulty complying with the order because funding has not been restored.
“Ten-day preschool is coming back to a collective farm here in Yongchon county for the first time in 20 years. It will open later this month,” said a source from North Pyongan province.
The source said that the reason for the resumption of the program is to get the mothers of young children to do farm work. But many of the mothers who in the past have used childcare as an excuse to get out of planting were in fact working in family businesses on the sly.
“County authorities have told each town’s party committees to bring back preschools, but since there’s a lack of funds some of the farms are having difficulty with it,” the source said.
“If they are having a hard time getting oil and grease for farming tools, how are they expected to repair the crumbling preschool buildings and remodel their interiors?” said the source.
The source said that despite the difficulty, two of the preschools in the county have managed to reopen, but only because they are the most likely areas to be audited by higher authorities.
“[Only] the preschools in Yangso-ri and Tongshin-ri [have been restored.],” said the source. Ri denotes a small village or hamlet in Korean.
“Farm laborers are concentrated in those areas and there’s also the major road connecting Pyongyang and Sinuiju running nearby, so the Central Committee can come by to inspect at a moment’s notice.”
But the source also revealed that those two preschools needed alternative funding sources, as the government is not footing the bill.
“The military authorities collected money from the residents and helped the collective farms restore [the preschools,]” said the source.
While in other countries, the announcement of free childcare services would result in jubilation among parents, the source said this was not the case when a town meeting was called in Yangso-ri to inform the people.
“They told the workers that a daycare center and a preschool will be open for a 10-day period, and that they could leave their kids between the ages of 1 and 7 there to focus on their farming work. Then they threatened [the mothers] saying that they plan to document all child related absences. This created a very unfriendly atmosphere,” said the source.
Meanwhile, a source from South Pyongan province said that the sudden order to reopen preschools without funding them is making the collective farms scramble to do so. But unlike the case in North Pyongan, the source said the farms in South Pyongan are instead docking the pay of farm workers.
“Since the government isn’t providing any food or money [for the preschools,] the collective farms decided to deduct a certain amount of ‘operational funds’ from the fall ‘allotment’ of the farm workers. The workers have expressed their opposition to the decision,” said the source.
This deduction will apparently be more for parents who utilize the preschools, according to the source.
“A high-ranking official at the farms told the workers that if they leave their children at the preschool, there will be deductions from their fall allotment even for the food their children eat [while there,]” the source said.
“[The workers] are resentful of the authorities, saying that [the policy] is meant to keep young women work in the farms, and to be able to justify treating them as if they were slaves.”
Many North Koreans view childcare as a necessity, especially in the cities. But the North Korean government has attempted to assert full control over that as well.
An RFA article published in 2014 described how in an effort to ‘standardize the state education system’ the regime ordered the immediate closure of all privately run day care facilities, deeming them illegal.
But in that case as well, the state had been unable to adequately distribute food and fuel to the schools starting in the 1990s, leaving the schools unfit to accommodate small children, according to sources.