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This Is What It’s Like to Teach English in North Korea

North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is ruled by a cruel, absolute dictatorship. (Image: Iebeslakritze/flickr)
North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is ruled by a cruel, absolute dictatorship. (Image: Iebeslakritze/flickr)

Not many outsiders experience life in repressive Stalinist North Korea, and I don’t think many want to. But journalist Suki Kim spent six months in the isolated nation posing as an English language teacher at the all-male elite Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

As you may expect, her experiences were very Orwellian.

“North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation,” Kim says in the below TED video.

Born in South Korea and now living in America, Kim taught at the university during the final six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign.

“Everything there is about the Great Leader, every book, every newspaper article, every song, every TV program—there is only one subject,” she says.

“The flowers are named after him, the mountains are carved with his slogans, and every citizen wears the badge of the Great Leader at all times.

“Even calendar begins with the birth of Kim Ill-sung,” she says in reference to the repressive regime’s founder.

See Kim’s 12-minute-long TED talk about her 2011 experiences in North Korea below:

The university where she taught was heavily guarded and was more like a prison.

“Teachers could only leave on group outings accompanied by an official minder, even then our trips were limited to sanctioned national monuments celebrating the Great Leader,” she said.

The students were restricted to the campus and were continually watched by minders. They were not allowed to contact their parents and any free time available was devoted to honoring the Great Leader.

Kim was never allowed to discuss the outside world with her students. She wasn’t even allowed to speak to them in Korean. And despite the university having a focus on technology, she said not many students knew of the Internet’s existence.

“They had never heard of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs,” Kim said. And you can forget about Facebook or Twitter.

“And I could not tell them. I went there looking for the truth but where do you start when an entire nation’s ideology, my students’ day-to-day reality and even my own position at the universities were all built on lies,” she says.

A culture of lies

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Kim said that the students lied constantly and easily.

“For example, they’ll say they called home all the time for example with their family, and I knew for a fact they were not allowed to keep in touch with their family,” she said.

“Or they’ll tell me that they cloned a rabbit when they were a fifth grader, which is completely impossible.”

It got to the point where she was unsure whether the students knew the difference between truth and fabrication.

“They get told so many insane things about the greatness of their nation and even their own past in a way, to show what great students they are, how advanced they are to the rest of the world, and part of them were just regurgitating this because that’s all they’ve ever been taught,” Kim said.

“At times, I wondered if they didn’t know the difference between lies and truth because when you think about it, their entire world is built on lies.”

Suki Kim teaching English at the all-male elite Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Suki Kim teaching English at the all-male elite Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Kim said that her ultimate goal in teaching at the university was to be able to write a book that humanizes North Koreans. Kim’s memoir about her time at the university, Without You, There Is No Us, was published in October of last year.

Kim says she remains worried about her students.

“Most of all them come across completely loyal to their regime in the book, so on that front I’m not worried,” she said.

“I am more, I guess, concerned because they live where they live and their new leader is not even remotely better than their other leader.

“So as long as the system of the Great Leader is intact, I would always worry about them.”

See Kim talk with Jon Stewart about her time in North Korea in the video below:

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