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English's utility discovered
Once-Banned Tongue Is All the Talk in N. Korea
Finding Good English Teachers Difficult in Pyeongyang
By Tsai Ting-I & Barbara Demick
Special to The Times

North Korean citizens in Pyongyang

PYONGYANG, North Korea — When he spotted an Australian tourist taking in the sights at the capital's Kim Il Sung Square, the young North Korean tour guide was delighted by the chance to practice his English.

"Hello, how are you from to country?" the guide recalled asking the woman.

When she looked puzzled, he followed up with another question. "How many old are you?"

For decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea's government deemed English a language of the enemy and banned it almost entirely. Russian was the leading foreign tongue because of the communist regime's extensive economic ties with the Soviet Union.

Now, years after the rest of Asia went through a craze for learning English, North Korea has belatedly discovered the utility of the lingua franca of international affairs. But the pursuit of proficiency has been complicated by the reclusive regime's fear of opening the floodgates to Western influences.

Almost all English-language books, newspapers, advertisements, movies and songs are still forbidden. Even T-shirts with English slogans are not allowed. There are few native speakers available to serve as instructors.

Haltingly, though, the government has started making changes, sending some of the best students abroad to study and even admitting a small number of British and Canadian teachers. Elite students are being encouraged to speak with foreign visitors in Pyongyang at trade fairs and other official events to practice their English — contacts that once would have been considered a serious crime.

According to the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., 4,783 North Koreans took the standardized test for English as a second language, or TOEFL, last year, triple the number six years earlier.

"They are not as unglobalized as they are portrayed. There is an acceptance that you need to learn English to have access to modern science and technology," said James Hoare, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang who helped bring English teachers into North Korea.

An expatriate living in Pyongyang who is involved with the nation's English-language programs said English had replaced Russian as the largest department at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, the leading foreign-language institute.

"There is a big drive now for learning and speaking English. The Ministry of Education is really trying to promote it," said the expatriate, who asked not to be quoted by name because of the North Korean regime's sensitivity about news coverage.

Several young North Koreans interviewed in Pyongyang expressed both a desire to learn English and frustration at the difficulties.

The tour guide, a lanky 30-year-old with a passion for basketball, said he had spent years studying English, including one year as an English major at the University of Foreign Studies, but still couldn't make small talk.

Aside from common courtesies, most of his vocabulary was made up of sports terminology.

"English is a common language between countries. Therefore, learning some basic English is helpful to our lives," the guide, who asked to be quoted only by his family name, Kim, said this spring.

One young woman, a member of an elite family, said she used to lock the door of her dormitory room so that she could read books in English that her father had smuggled in from business trips abroad.

Another woman, also a tour guide, lamented that she was told to study Russian in high school instead of English.

"My father said that three things needed to be done in one's life — to get married, to drive a car and to learn English," said the woman.

The biggest complaints of English students were the lack of native speakers and the dearth of English-language materials.

A few elite students have been trained with Hollywood movies — "Titanic," "Jaws" and "The Sound of Music" are among a select number of titles deemed acceptable — but most students have to settle for English translations of the sayings of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. To the extent that any Western literature makes it into North Korea, it is usually from the 19th century. Charles Dickens, for example, is popular.

The regime even frowns on Korean-English dictionaries produced in China or South Korea, fearing that they use a corrupted Korean with too many English-based words.

Jake Buhler, a Canadian who taught English last summer in Pyongyang, said he was shocked that some of the best libraries in the capital had no books produced in the West other than various out-of-date oddities, such as a 1950s manual of shipping terminology.

Despite the limitations, he was impressed by the competence and determination of his students, mostly academics preparing to study abroad.

"These were keen people," Buhler said. "If we watched a video and they didn't know a word, they would look it up in a dictionary in about one-tenth the time it might take me."

But in ordinary schools, the level of accomplishment is lower. An American diplomat who interviewed North Korean teenagers in China a few years ago recalled that when they tried to speak English, not a single word could be understood.

Joo Song Ha, a former North Korean high school teacher who defected and is now a journalist in Seoul, said: "Basically what you'll get is a teacher who doesn't really speak English reading from a textbook with pronunciation so bad that nobody could possibly understand it."

About a decade before his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung started promoting English, ordering that it be taught in schools beginning in fourth grade. For a time, English lessons were carried on North Korean television, which is controlled entirely by the government.

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea in 2000, leader Kim Jong Il reportedly asked her whether the U.S. could send English teachers to the country.

Nothing came of the request because of the rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but Britain, which unlike the United States has formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, has been sending educators since 2000 to teach students at Kim Il Sung University and the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.

Other programs to train North Korean English teachers in Britain have been put on hold because of concerns about North Korea's human rights record and the nuclear issue, people familiar with the programs said.

Some critics of the North Korean regime believe that it wants fluent English speakers mainly for nefarious purposes.

Those suspicions were bolstered when Charles Robert Jenkins, a former U.S. soldier who defected to North Korea in 1965 and was allowed to leave last year, admitted teaching English at a military academy to students presumably in training to become spies.

Park Yak Woo, a South Korean academic who has studied North Korean textbooks, says that North Koreans want to be proficient in English primarily to promote juche — the national ideology that emphasizes self-reliance. "They're not really interested in Western culture or ideas. They want to use English as a means of spreading propaganda about their own system," Park said.

In one instructor's manual, Park found the following passage:

Teacher: Han Il Nam, how do you spell the word "revolution"?

Student A: R-e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.

Teacher: Very good, thank you. Sit down. Ri Chol Su. What's the Korean for "revolution"?

Student B: Hyekmyeng.

Teacher: Fine, thank you. Have you any questions?

Student C: No questions.

Teacher: Well, Kim In Su, what do you learn English for?

Student D: For our revolution.

Teacher: That's right. It's true that we learn English for our revolution.

Hoare, the former ambassador to Pyongyang, defends his country's efforts to promote English-language education.

"Whatever their intention, it doesn't matter. If you start giving people an insight into the outside world, you inevitably modify their views. Unless you give them an alternative to juche, what else are they going to believe in?"

Buhler, the Canadian teacher, said that teaching English could be the key to opening up North Korea, long known as the hermit kingdom.

"If we want them to tackle the new world, we have to teach them," he said.

Special correspondent Tsai reported from Pyongyang and Times staff writer Demick from Seoul.






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