North Korean daycare: a growing industry
In the era of informal market activity or the jangmadang generation of North Korea, it is almost essential for a woman to work. That means sending their children to North Korean private daycare.
In 1958, the proclamation of socialism in North Korea ensured that all things revolved around socialist principles, including economics. Besides the national socialist movement, international trade between North Korea and other socialist republics like China and eastern European states helped North Korea’s post-war economic recovery reach a comparatively stable state.
However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s economy also began to make a turn for the worst, and the masses moved away from the socialist economy, becoming dependent on the market. Children born after 1990 are thus dubbed in North Korea as the jangmadang or market generation.
Most of the people who work in these markets are women. Labour laws in North Korea leave men hopelessly stuck in their organised posts, even though their state-run workplaces are highly unproductive, as restricted resource supply prevents factory machinery from running. Yet, the spirit of the Worker’s Party remains.
Many women are forced to take their children to work with them, strapping them onto their backs while they trade in the markets. The summer season is particularly torturous – temperatures over 35 degrees Celcius, combined with humidity levels reaching 100% make it difficult for both mother and child alike. Reluctant to leave their children in empty houses, North Korean working parents are now seeking private daycare services.
One escapee, identified only as Jeon, had only been living in South Korea for five months. She testified: “Since Kim Jong Un came to power, industrial relations policy has become even more strict. There are fewer loopholes for men to take days off work, even though they are given no pay. Where there is no work, men are forced into mass mobilisation, or military training. State-run workplaces have higher expectations of their workers – for example, all men are expected bring boxed lunches to work now. And if men don’t turn up to work, a member of the company’s Party unit reports them to the city’s labour division.”
She further explained, “For a North Korean working couple, allowing the father to care for young children, while the wife works in the markets, would be a phenomenal move. But the reality is, men cannot remove themselves from their official duties, however unfair or unproductive it may be. They cannot offer any help with the caring for, or rearing of, their own children. This single principle is the cause of all the pressure that modern North Korean women face, having to take on the role of both primary breadwinner and primary caretaker.”
The solution? “A new industry has opened up – private daycare. Some women now offer to look after young children at their homes in return for a sum of money.”
Is North Korean daycare something new, though? Yes, and no, says Jeon: “It’s true that a lot of North Korean women had already been using a form of private daycare previously, by sending their children to the homes of their grandparents, paternal or maternal, and periodically offering them some money as either allowance or a sign of gratitude.”
But the new industry is closer to kindergarten in its structure. “More women are opting for daycare because the operators of those services are usually well-educated, modern females. This way, they’d be assured of not only the safety of their children, but also their education.”
Like South Koreans, who have a reputation for being highly competitive when it comes to school performance, North Korean women are similarly placing education higher on their list of priorities. “After the 90s, the birth rate in North Korea dropped to about one or two children per household only. Having fewer offspring leads to a heightened sense of expectation for the children on the part of the parent. It is only natural that parents desire nothing but the best for their children – and that includes daycare.”
To add, “Teachers of music or foreign languages are popular options for daycare. A lot of female teachers leave their official jobs upon marriage but continue teaching privately in their homes. In North Korea, teachers are not paid well or even given rations of rice, so early retirement is not uncommon.”
Park, an escapee from Onsung, made her living in North Korea looking after other people’s children. “Depending on the age of the child, the price for my services would differ. The rate for children aged six to twenty-four months old is double that of children aged four or five years old. There are a few reasons for this – for example, infants need special care, such as breast milk every two hours, or a change of diapers (which are provided and laundered by hand). Before I defected, I demanded one kilo of rice a day for looking after an infant child in Onsung.
“For children aged four or five years old, I provided food at designated times and made sure that they had naps. They would be free to play outdoors, as long as they did not run onto any large roads. I received one kilo of noodles daily in return, which is really quite cheap. Looking after children isn’t easy, but I found it a lot easier than going out into the markets. Occasionally, a child I looked after might run a high fever or a suffer a severe case of diarrhea. Those times were terrible – although it wasn’t my fault, I’d worry for the child and for the mother. I’d also worry that I’d lose my job.”
But didn’t the North Korean government offer kindergarten? “Yes,” Park said, “The state did offer public child services, both daycare and kindergarten. But North Korean women are hesitant to send their children there. The quality of state-run childcare institutions is subpar at best. Rooms were either too hot or too cold, and most importantly, they lacked basic hygiene, creating ideal conditions for children to catch contagious diseases. And although they were state-run, the teachers never did it for free, pressuring parents to pay them. North Korean mothers, naturally, want their children to grow up in the best environments they can possibly provide, making private daycare the ideal choice.”
Reporting by Park, Ju-Hee.
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