A design for a North Korean elementary school uniform. Taken from an article published in the Rodong Sinmun in May 2023.

In September of last year, the new school year began with North Korean authorities inspecting students' uniforms. The quality of state-supplied uniforms is so poor that people have been making their own similar-looking uniforms, which is what the authorities decided to crack down on. There is growing dissatisfaction among parents with the government’s totalitarian move to force everyone to wear the same low-quality uniforms. (KANG Ji-won / JEON sung-jun)

◆ State-supplied school uniforms are all spin and no substance

"Provide quality school uniforms to students across the country," Kim Jong-un said at the Workers' Party plenary session in late December 2023. Since then, state-run media has frequently reported that the government is responsible for producing and supplying essential goods to students, which the regime promotes as the country’s future generation. However, the government’s propaganda may be an indication of the shortage of school uniforms.

Free compulsory education, along with free medical treatment, has long been a measure of North Korea's superiority as a socialist nation. As a result, students were generally provided with free school supplies and uniforms each semester. However, since the 1990s, North Korea's economic situation has shaken up the entire education system, and uniforms are only supplied every few years.

In the spring of 2023, North Korea provided students with school uniforms, but they were shoddily designed and made of poor-quality materials, according to an ASIAPRESS reporting partner in Hyesan, Yanggang Province. As a result, the uniforms were rejected by students and parents alike.

"The clothes they supplied this spring are made of mixed fabrics, which are very wrinkled and of low quality... and they fall apart immediately. The quality of the uniforms is so pathetic that the kids look like homeless children when they wear them, so parents have to spend money to buy new ones."

◆ Back-to-school uniform inspections in North Korea

According to the reporting partner, North Korean authorities conducted uniform inspections at schools in preparation for the first day of school on September 1, 2023. The inspections took issue with new, high-quality uniforms purchased by parents. The inspection found that about a third of students were not wearing the uniforms provided by their schools. The government said the reason for the crackdown rested on the need to ensure all students wore the same uniforms.

"We spent money to make similar clothes for the kids, and now the parents are worried that the crackdown will force us to make them again with inferior fabrics."

The crackdown on the availability of quality school uniforms has led to growing dissatisfaction among students and parents. In fact, there are even those who do not welcome the government distribution of school uniforms, saying that it is a waste of money for the government to supply inferior uniforms, particularly given that the government did not conduct crackdowns during periods it was unable to supply uniforms at all.

◆ School uniform makers happy to take advantage of the situation

The only ones who are smiling at all of this are the makers of school uniforms. Since the beginning of the month, there has been an increase in the number of orders to school uniform makers asking them to make clothes with the same quality fabrics as those supplied by the government. The uniform makers are purposely making low-quality uniforms in order to earn a profit.

In addition, a reporting partner recently told ASIAPRESS that the cost of making a school uniform for boys in North Korea is 25,000 to 30,000 won, and 23,000 to 28,000 won for girls.
※ 1,000 North Korean won is about $0.118.

The government crackdown on school uniforms is part of an effort to return to a collectivist and egalitarian society, but has led to discontent in schools. The effort is backfiring, as students and parents are increasingly resentful of the socialist system.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.