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I was an English Teacher in North Korea
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2016-01-25 18:06:06
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I was an English Teacher in North Korea


Kyeong-ok KIM (alias)

Escaped from the North in Apr. 2003, 

Entered the South in Jan. 2008



My Family and Life at School


I was born in Musan County, North Hamgyong Province. My parents are currently in North Korea. They were both professional soldiers. I have four siblings who were all soldiers, too. I was married, and I have an ex-husband and a son in the North. I often shed tears just thinking about my son.


I was an English teacher in North Korea. I found English very interesting as soon as I started learning the alphabet in my first year of senior middle school. Now that I think about it, learning English was sort of my hobby. Since I loved studying it, my scores were high. After graduating senior middle school, I entered the English Department in a College of Education. The tuition fees were free while I was there, and the college also gave out some scholarships to students. The scholarship was around 15 won per month; more for those who were better at studying. Though there were no tuition fees, administrators often asked students to submit miscellaneous fees, usually claiming they needed to repair the dormitory. When they asked for the money, they always said it was the directive of Kim Il Sung, and thus we were not able to object to their demands. I lived in the dormitory while I was at the college. They served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but during ‘89 and ‘90, they often gave out porridge. There were also a few announcements telling us that we must buy our own food, which makes me think that the real economic crisis started in 1990.


The English and Russian Departments were some of the most important departments for the government. At that time, North Korea had good relations with Russia, making the Russian Department significant to the government. However, the English Department was considered important because of the anticipated war with the US and unification with South Korea. We learned English by listening to recorded English conversations on tapes, not with proper foreign teachers. In my fourth year of college, the 13th World Festival for Youth and Students took place. Though the government recruited interpreters for the festival, I could not apply, because an interpreter must be 160cm in height or more.


In North Korea, after graduating from the College of Education, you are quickly designated to a school. In 1991 after graduation, I was designated to a school, where I started working as an English teacher. At that time, the monthly salary was 100 won, which was not enough to support myself. My parents bought me clothes, but I could not even think about saving my salary. There were 50 students in one class, but there were not enough textbooks, so they all received textbooks from their older classmates. When the new term started, the government only provided two textbooks for every ten students. The quality was not good either. It was hard to read the letters on the dark paper, and when you start writing on them, the pages would peel away. I taught only with the textbook, no other materials. Only students interested in entering an English department paid attention in class.


The school system in North Korea requires students study for 11 years. This consists of two years of kindergarten, four years of elementary school, six years of senior middle school, and additional studying in college or professional school. In order to enter college or professional school, we have to take an exam. Those who score above 50 points enter college, and those above 30 points enter professional schools. Those who score under those points fail to go anywhere. This is a key difference between the North Korean educational system and South Korean educational system. If we graduate from professional school, we are able to enter college right away. Currently, North Korea, it’s hard to earn enough to live on, and people tend to enter college in order to earn high social positions, rather than to gain a profession.


There are 45-minute lectures in elementary and middle school. Morals are taught in every 45-minute segment. All mandatory educational courses and lecture begins with these morals, where all students recite, “The great leader and comrade Kim Il Sung instructed us to do so.” We are required to recite this.


When the Arduous March (the period of devastating poverty) started, no more than half of the students showed up for class. The government stopped providing food rations, so the teachers were also devastated. The teachers came to work 10 days a month. I did farm work along with teaching. The school demanded students to submit things, such as Kkomagyehoek [a quota of raw materials, including waste paper, metal pieces, rabbit hide and etc, assigned to school children] but some could not, and were therefore banned from coming to school. For example, one of the required things were rabbit hide, which most students submit after buying it from the market. How could they buy the rabbit hide when there isn’t even enough money to buy food?


I worked as a teacher until 1995. Afterwards, I divorced my husband and lived with my relatives. I decided to flee the country in order to make money. I crossed the Tumen River in 2003 to China. Fleeing the country was difficult, but it was more difficult to live in China without an ID card. I tried desperately to make money in China for 6 months. I was a teacher in North Korea, but I could not teach in China, and thus I did things other than teaching. I worked in restaurants, farm work, took care of children, etc.




Q & A


Were there people expressing anti-government during the Arduous March (the period of devastating poverty)?


The one and only TV broadcasting network in North Korea is Chosun Central Television. It broadcasts from 3 pm to 10 pm weekdays and 10 am to 10 pm on the weekends. They had a three-hour lunch break. The broadcast always reports that Kim Il Sung provided all the necessities. I never knew the word Hangook (South Korea). I always thought that South Korea was in poverty. I learned from the TV that the US was a great enemy to North Korea, and that is the reason why we are so poor. I believed that because we did not have freedom of the press. I did not know, so I could not perceive that the leaders where all wrong.


Are there foreign teachers in North Korea? Is there training program for teachers? How were teaching materials made?


We learn grammar in North Korea. It is not easy to listen and speak in English. I went through three countries trying to get to South Korea, and I thought I did not need English because those countries did not know it. However, I realized I needed English when I went to Thailand. I felt that these foreigners were speaking with correct grammar, and I was able to understand it, but I could not speak back. It was the same English, but as the pronunciation was so different that I could not understand. I think the English I learned is not American English nor British English but North Korean English. When you go to middle school, teachers show you pictures, tell you a word or an easy sentence which explain the pictures, and make you repeat after. After doing that for 11 hours, we get the hint of how English is put together. After that, we learn phonetic signs for four hours. The styles of learning grammar aren’t really different from that of South Korea, but learning how to speak English is very different.


There were North Koreans living in China without any identification in your film. What was difficult to do living without one?


North Korean women are sold to Chinese men when they arrive in China. They live with their Chinese husbands regardless of age differences and have to bear their children. If they don’t listen, they threaten to turn them in to the police.


I applied to be a kitchen worker when I was 34, but as there were no places left, I decided to work as a cleaner. The monthly pay was half of what Chinese workers were receiving. However, I was grateful that I could earn money. Then I had to work at a farm in Heilongjiang Province in order to escape from the police. I took care of children in order to earn money. Chinese people love to gamble, and they usually gathered to do mah-jong. So I took care of the children, did farm work, and prepared meals for them while they gambled. I did so much work, but I did not earn any money. I could not ask for more money, because I had nowhere else to go. Then, once, I was turned in by some Chinese people, and I was captured by the police. I lived every day hiding from the police before I was repatriated to North Korea. You are killed when you are repatriated. Fleeing from North Korea was not because of any political reasons. I escaped because it was hard to live there, but the punishment is not hard. It is just cruel.


Could you tell us how they teach about other countries in the world, geographically? I know that there is a ‘Pyongyang geocentric theory.’


The book tells us that there are 200 countries. But they say that everyone admires Pyongyang, and that we are the most respected country in the world. Pyongyang is described as the most developed city in the world. It says that Pyongyang is the only place with electricity, and that other countries are in devastating poverty. It says adverse things about capitalism. They teach that Korea is a colony of the US and that it is in poverty as well. As I learned from a very young age that Kim Il Sung provides all the provisions, I believed what they told me was all true. There is a subject called the Revolutionary History of Comrade Kim Il Sung. It is about the overall life of Kim Il Sung, and we must memorize it thoroughly and recite the wrong doings of ourselves based on his revolutionary history. This is an aggregate tale of North Korean life.


Some North Korean adolescents have a hard time adapting to South Korean life, and sometimes they wish to go back. Are you satisfied with South Korean life?


While I was living in China, I thought I could manage living in South Korea. But as I live here, I feel that I fall behind everyone culturally, and that makes me hard to mix into Korean society. I learned about South Korea through a college student called Im Soo Kyung. North Koreans think of Im Soo Kyung as a Korean model. I mean that she is there because she likes North Korea. North Korea refers to Korean men as sons of bitches. They think they are all liars. I also thought the same at first. But South Koreans have manners. Defected North Koreans only see the lives of well-off South Koreans, and they feel self-accusation regarding their own lives. It must be the same for younger people, too. They compare their lives with others, because they are not satisfied with their own. They feel cowed, and ask, “Why can’t my parents live like that? Why can’t I live like that?” I think this is why they have a hard time fitting into South Korean society.


You learned Juche Ideology in North Korea, and you taught it yourself. But now you address Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il directly using their names. How did your thoughts change about them? What would you like to say to those who are still living in North Korea?


My thinking process changed while I was in China. The first people I met in China said that Kim Il Sung should die. When I heard this, I thought that they should not have said that. At that time, I still did not think badly of Kim Il Sung. But when I arrived in South Korea, I began to realize that the system was totally wrong. I learned about Korea through TV shows. Come to think of it, there are so many dramatic stories in the TV series. After passing through China, the third countries, and Korea’s National Intelligence Service, I accessed many documents and records, and learned that the North Korean system of juche was very wrong.


When I was living in China, I heard that Kim Jung Il killed Kim Il Sung. What I want to tell North Koreans is that they should realize the truth by any and every means possible, and quickly perceive that the world they learned is entirely wrong. I believe that they are entitled to live in a humane, liberal world. I would like to ask for help making North Korea a country of freedom like South Korea.


The main character flees from North Korea through a broker in Crossing. Is this a special case or is a possible one? How much does it cost to do this?


What is described in Crossing is the reality of North Korea. There are many summarized parts, but most of them are all true. For example, there are many North Korean defectors in China. It does not cost anything to enter the embassy, but we risk our lives doing it. Some people carry deadly medicines when they attempt defection, because they are killed when they are repatriated to North Korea. I spent tens of millions of won to save a defector and bring them to South Korea. If you do this through missionary workers, it does not cost much. I left North Korea in April 2003. The guide did not know the way to South Korea, and I ended up in front of the borderline defense army gates. So I was captured, and almost was killed, but I used money to escape. I used help from the outside, but it took 20,000 Yuan to help four people. That’s about 30 million Korean won.


Are there disadvantages to your family if you defect?


I sent a letter to my family when I was in China. The Security Agent discovered it and inspected my family. Once my sister was investigated regarding my defection. My sister denied the fact, but they showed her the letter and told her to tell the truth. I sent money with the letter, and the officers at the Security Agency said that he would let this go if I continue to send money with the letters to my sister. If there is a defector in a family, the family is forced to move to a place where it is harder to live. I do not know if my family was forced to move. I heard that their children cannot continue their studies, because they are categorized now as a defector’s family. I had many agonizing thoughts before my lecture. If my face is known, my family will suffer. However, I decided to do this lecture because I wish the unification to happen quickly. There is a fence around Tumen River. I do not understand why they do not use that money to help the starving people. North Koreans are thinking differently know, but Kim Jung Il keeps the people in captivity with his fence. There is no freedom in North Korea.


It is known that there are good nursery schools and very systematic education regarding the political system of North Korea. Is that the same in places outside Pyongyang? Could you briefly describe your defection?


We learn about the structure before we are even born. Education regarding the North Korean political system is still happening right now. It is possible to defect if you have money.


There is no volunteer work in North Korea, because it is hard to live for everyone. I greatly thank you for coming here in order to help defected North Koreans in South Korea. If there is a chance, I wish to participate in volunteer work. Also, I hope that North Koreans will soon realize the wrongdoings of the government and live in freedom.



▣ Translated by Changmin Choi