Korean is the official language of North Korea. Korean is similar to Mongolian and Manchurian and has a sentence structure similar to Japanese. North Korean dialects are different from the dialects spoken in the south. Dialects of Korean, some of which are not mutually intelligible, are spoken throughout North and South Korea country and generally coincide with provincial boundaries. The national dialects roughly coincide with the dialects of Pyongyang and Seoul. The written language in North Korea employs the phonetic-based Hangul (or Chosun’gul) alphabet. Perhaps the world most logical and simple of all the world's alphabet, Hangul was first introduced in the 15th century under King Sejong. Unlike South Korea, North Korea does not use Chinese characters in its written language.

In North Korea, very few people speak a language other than Korean. Chinese and Russian are the most common second languages. Russian used be and may still be taught in school. There has traditionally been some Russian-language publications and radio and television broadcasts. Russian is still used in commerce and science. Some people in the tourist industry speak English. English is not nearly as widely spoken as it is in South Korea, Western Europe, and even Russia. German and French are also used somewhat in the tourist industry..

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Technically, North Korea uses the same Korean language as the one spoken in South Korea. The cultural and sociopolitical division of more than half a century, however, pushed the languages in the peninsula far apart, if not in syntax, at least in semantics. When North Korea faced the task of building a new national culture, it faced a serious problem of illiteracy. For example, over 90 percent of women in northern Korea in 1945 were illiterate; they in turn made up 65 percent of the total illiterate population. In order to overcome illiteracy, North Korea adopted the all-Korean script, eliminating the use of Chinese characters. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“ North Korea inherited this modern form of Korean vernacular script consisting of nineteen consonants and twenty-one vowels. The abolition of the use of Chinese characters from all public printing and writing helped achieved nationwide literacy at a remarkable speed. By 1979, the United States government estimated that North Korea had a 90 percent literacy rate. At the end of the twentieth century, it was estimated that 99 percent of North Korea's population could read and write Korean sufficiently.

Some South Koreans regard the North Korean vernacular as more “pure” because of its perceived lack of foreign loan words. But Han Yong-woo, a South Korean lexicographer, disagrees, telling there’s no such thing as a pure language. “All languages are living and growing, including North Korean," he says. “Over the years they’ve borrowed foreign words too, but mainly from Russian and Chinese.” For instance, Han says, the word “tractor” made its way from English to North Korea via their former Soviet neighbors. [Source: Jason Strother,, May 19, 2015]

North and South Korean Languages

The division of Korea into North and South after World War II has led to differences in the language in the two nations, most prominently the addition of many new words to the South Korean dialect. Despite North–South differences in the Korean language, the two standards are still broadly intelligible. One notable feature within the divergence is the North's lack of anglicisms and other foreign borrowings due to isolationism and self-reliance—pure/invented Korean words are used in replacement. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

On the differences between the North and South Korean languages, Reuters reported: “In North Korea, they ask whether you speak “chosun-mal”. In South Korea, they want to know whether you can converse in “hanguk-mal”. A different name for their ostensibly common language is a measure of how far North and South Koreans have grown apart. And it does not stop there. If South Koreans ask North Koreans how they are, the instinctive answer sounds polite to Northerners but conveys a different message to Southern ears — “Mind your own business”. With such divergence, there have been fears among linguists that more decades of separation would result in two different languages or that unification would be an improbable merger of vocabularies reflecting a communist and capitalist past. [Source: Reuters, Oct 23, 2005]

“Inter-Korean communication in commerce invariably creates confusion — often resulting in the use of fingers — because monetary figures are quoted by South and North Koreans in the two different ways of counting in the Korean language.” To improve communication, “North and South Korea have agreed to compile a joint dictionary of the Korean language and North Korea is also trying to expand studies of English and technology terms that have shaped the language in the South.

“In the years following the 1950-1953 Korean War, North Korea tried to purge foreign words, especially English and Japanese expressions, from its language. Political expressions in the isolated communist country have also become alien and incomprehensible to those in the more outward-looking South. The South Korean language has borrowed heavily from foreign languages, especially English. It evolved with twists and turns beyond the imagination of those in the North, not least because the South has developed and adapted technology that does not exist on the other side of the peninsula.

“South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. Email and SMS text messaging create new words with dizzying speed. Words from another language such as English can be swallowed whole and then regurgitated in an abbreviated, unrecognisable form. For example, the English term “digital camera” is called “dika” (pronounced dee-ka) in South Korea. North Korea, by contrast, is decidedly low-tech and highly impoverished. There are no digital cameras and personal computers are hardly for the masses. If a South Korean said “dika”, a North Korean would be more likely to mistake it for a similar-sounding curse than for a device that transfers images into a digital form where they are stored on a memory card that can be downloaded on a computer.

“A South Korean professor who is working on the joint North-South dictionary project said he did not have any difficulty communicating with North Koreans his own age because daily expressions were the same. Hong Yoon-pyo, a professor of linguistics at Yonsei University, said the linguistic roots of the Korean language were long and deep so there was almost no divide in the structure of the language on both sides of the peninsula. “There is a vocabulary gap, however,” Hong said. “Vocabulary can be changed by the outside world and in South Korea that mostly means the Western world and in North Korea that has mostly meant China and Russia.”

Difference Between South Korean and North Korean Korean

The English-Korean translator Deborah Smith wrote in The Guardian: One question I’ve often been asked since I started learning Korean is: do the two halves of the peninsula speak the same language? The answer is yes and not quite. Yes, because division happened only in the previous century, which isn’t enough time for mutual unintelligibility to develop. Not quite, because it is enough time for those countries’ vastly different trajectories to impact on the language they use, most noticeably in the case of English loanwords – a veritable flood in the South, carefully dammed in the North. The biggest differences, though, are those of dialect, which have pronounced regional differences both between and within North and South. Unlike in the UK, a dialect doesn’t just mean a handful of region-specific words; conjunctions and sentence endings, for example, are pronounced and thus written differently. That’s a headache until you crack the code. [Source: Deborah Smith, The Guardian, February 24, 2017]

Gary Rector, who has lived in South Korea since 1967, wrote in “There are a number of different dialects in both North and South Korea, so there is no simple answer, but if we stick with the dialects that are regarded as "standard" in the North and the South, we're comparing the region in and around Seoul with the region in and around Pyongyang. The biggest differences in the pronunciation seem to be the intonation and the pronunciation of a” certain vowel”, which is much more rounded in the North, sounding very much like” another vowel “to those of us who live in the South. Of course, southerners can tell from the context which vowel was meant. There are also quite a few differences in spelling, the alphabetical order used in dictionaries, and lots of vocabulary items. The Communist government there instituted an effort to "purify" the language by eliminated "unnecessary" Sino-Korean terms and foreign borrowings (mostly from Japanese and Russian). They even have a different word for Saturday! [Source: Gary Rector,, October 2, 2015]

Michael Han wrote in Here are some differences I am aware of: Dialects As common with the rest of the world, dialect differences exist between South Korea (officially a.k.a. Republic of Korea, ROK) and North Korea (officially a.k.a. Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK). Word referring to a crust of overcooked rice (ubiquitous before the days of electronic rice cookers) is called "nu-rung-ji" in ROK, but "ga-ma-chi" in DPRK. There are many other dialect differences in words that usually have to do with agriculture, familial relations, and other words that trace back to ancient times, but very slight grammatical differences. [Source: Michael Han, Quora, Han says he is mostly a kimchi-driven cultural anthropologist. April 27, 2020, Upvoted by Kat Li, BA in linguistics from Stanford]

“Modern foreign loanwords: ROK has a lot of loanwords from Japanese colonial times and from Anglophone countries. Many words such as [seat] belt, ice [cream], office, and other nouns that have been borrowed from English have been incorporated as common Korean words, probably very similar to how Japanese have adopted many of Western words into their own language. However, DPRK has been very intentional about keeping its language pure by trying to come up with uniquely Korean substitute words for foreign innovations. For example, seat belt is commonly called "ahn-jeon belt" (= safety belt) in ROK, but "geol-sang kkeun" (= slip-on rope) or "pahk tti" (= probably an abbreviation of "buckle band") in DPRK, and ice cream is called "ice cream" in ROK, but "eoh-reum bo-soong-yi" (= ice "peach flower"), and so on.

“Hanja (traditional Chinese characters used in Korea): DPRK has systematically stopped using Hanja characters completely starting 1949, and ROK has always had deeply divided opinions on the use of Hanja, flip-flopping to and fro the Hanja usage. For example, an anti-Hanja educational minister would be voted in and the public schools stopped teaching for several years until an pro-Hanja educational minister got voted in. Before the Japanese occupational era, Hanja was the script of choice for almost all official documents, delegating Hangeul to the commoners and women of the royal court, then near the end of the Japanese occupational era, with the rise of nationalism, Hangeul officially became the de-facto script of the Korean people. However, Hanja remained as the script to clarify meanings (as Hangeul is a completely phonetic script) on newspapers. Before the recent economic and political ascent of China, Hanja was almost completely removed from ROK newspapers, and then made a comeback only as an instrument to clarify meanings on the newspapers. It was recently reported that DPRK also started teaching Hanja in schools as well.

“The Future: Relatively more open DPRK gov't has allowed a open dialogue at an academic level, so scholars from both sides have been allowed, albeit in a very limited way, to analyze and cooperate on lexicons. Due to the precipitation of some political climate, there has been very little progress on this, but with the slow introduction of Internet and outside TV programs in the black markets of DPRK, North Koreans are slowly becoming much more aware of how South Koreans use the language. And also due to the joint cooperation by scholars and with the help of ROK government, North Korean language itself has been much more accessible in South Korea.

North Korean State Vocabulary

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “In North Korea's linguistic practice, Kim Il Sung's words are frequently quoted as a gospel-like reference point. People learn the vocabulary by reading publications of the state and the party. Since the print industry and the entire publishing establishment are strictly state-owned and state-controlled, and no private importation of foreign-printed materials or audiovisual resources is permitted, words that do not conform with the interest of the party and the state are not introduced into the society in the first place, resulting in efficient censorship. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The vocabulary that the state favors includes words relating to such concepts as revolution, socialism, communism, class struggle, patriotism, anti-imperialism, anticapitalism, the national reunification, and dedication and loyalty to the leader. By way of contrast, the vocabulary that the state finds difficult or inappropriate, such as that referring to sexual or love relations, does not appear in print. Even so-called romantic novels depict lovers who are more like comrades on a journey to fulfill the duties they owe to the leader and the state.

“Limiting the vocabulary in this way has made everyone, including the relatively uneducated, into competent practitioners of the state-engineered linguistic norm. On the societal level, this had an effect of homogenizing the linguistic practice of the general public. A visitor to North Korea would be struck by how similar people sound. In other words, rather than broadening the vision of citizens, literacy and education in North Korea confine the citizenry into a cocoon of the North Korean-style socialism and the state ideology.”

Translating North Korean Korean to English

On translating “The Accusation,” written by a writer still living and working in North Korea under pseudonym Bandi, Deborah Smith wrote in The Guardian: “The challenge was capturing details such as children playing on sorghum stilts – a specificity of a culture that is in danger of becoming shared only in memory, whose evocation reaches back to a time when north Korea meant simply the collection of provinces 100 miles up the country where the food was milder, the winters were colder, and where your aunt and uncle lived. [Source: Deborah Smith, The Guardian, February 24, 2017]

“Having learned Korean through books rather than immersion, I usually avoid translating fiction with a lot of dialogue, but The Accusation would die on the page without the tension and tenderness it provides. Even outside the dialogue itself, Bandi’s use of free indirect speech and inclusion of letters and diary entries make his stories feel like a tale that is being told to you. It’s always fun to experiment with colloquialisms, trying to hit that sweet spot between being lively and interesting but not overly country-specific: “fobbed off”, “keep mum”, “nodded off”, even “kid”. The Accusation is full of colourful expressions that both enliven the narrative and root us in the daily lives of its characters: the foods they eat, the environments they inhabit, the myths and metaphors through which they make sense of their world. Some of these are easy to grasp, such as the marriage of the “white heron and black crow” – the daughter of a high-ranking party cadre and the son of a disgraced traitor to the regime. Others are less simple, more specialised, such as my favourite: “The winter sun sets swifter than a pea rolling off a monk’s head” – which relies on the reader’s awareness that a monk’s head would be shaved and therefore a smooth surface.

“But I also had to be wary that the phrases I chose to capture Bandi’s colloquial style didn’t inadvertently efface the specificity of the North Korean situation. Translating “a labour camp whose location was known to no one”, I had the option of “a place not found on any map” – but in a country where freedom of movement is a luxury reserved for those of impeccably high standing, would such a phrase spring to mind as easily as it had to mine? Consulting the author was impossible; nobody involved in the book’s publication is in contact with him or knows who he is.

“Whatever I’m translating, I work from the assumption that objectivity and transparency are impossibilities, so the best I can do is to be aware of my own biases in order to make a conscious decision where, or indeed whether, to correct for them. My job is to advance the author’s agenda, not my own; here, I had to make a part-educated and part-hopeful guess that these were aligned. From their caricaturing in mainstream media, we have an idea of what North Koreans sound like: shrill, silly, using Soviet-era cod spy speak. One of my most important tasks was to resist this, especially as these are tales, for the most part, not of spies or apparatchiks but of ordinary people “torn apart by contradictions”. I was initially dissatisfied with the usual translation of the Sonyeondan – the lowest level of the Communist party hierarchy, which is also (for boys) the upper years of schooling – as “Boy Scouts”. For me, this conjured up images of cheery communality and reef knots rather than something ominous and ideological, a kind of Hitler Youth. Then the penny dropped – of course, the former is precisely how its appeal would be constructed; not merely as some deception practised on its impressionable young members, but as genuine lived reality. I was reminded of when I first learned that “Taliban” literally translates as “students” – how the knowledge of the way a group sees itself can radically alter our view.

“And that, to me, is the great strength of this book. As a work of fiction, it is an attempt to counter the stifling of human imaginations with an act of that same imagination. This is curiously timely, given recent events: the election of an autocrat in the United States and the revelation that the now-impeached President Park’s South Korean government blacklisted many of its country’s artists for their perceived political leanings. What we have in common is more than what divides us – I hope that my translation shows how this holds true for those of us as far from North Korea as the UK and US, and as close as the other half of the Korean peninsula.

North and South Korea Compile Dictionary

In the mid 2000s, academics from North and South Korea began working together on a joint dictionary, no easy task. Anna Fifield wrote in the Financial Times: “This means tackling variations in perception such as those exemplified by the definition of goyong - which means employment or "the act of paying a person for their work" in the capitalist South, but "an imperialist who buys people to make them their subordinate" in the communist North.Indeed, even the language being defined is a point of divergence. In North Korea(Chosun in North Korean), they speak Chosunmal and write in Chosungeul, while in the South (Hanguk) they speak Hangukmal and write in Hangeul. [Source: Anna Fifield, Financial Times, December 15, 2005]

“Nevertheless, about 10 academics from each Korea have been meeting in the North this year to agree on the principles of the dictionary, which is set to contain 300,000 words and take until 2011 to complete. They have also determined to create both paper and online editions - no small feat considering the internet is banned in North Korea. "People might think that North-South language is very different but in fact it's not that different," says Hong Yun-pyo, the Yonsei University professor whois leading the southern contingent. "For 5,000 years we had the same language and we have been apart for only 60, so there are more similarities than differences," he says. "Culture is flowing naturally, upstream and downstream, between the two Koreas."

“While many of the differences between the Korean languages are little more than a case of "potato, potahto", about 5 per centof the words differ materially in their meanings. Many stem from the courses the two halves of the peninsula have followed - South Korea's language is heavily influenced by English while North Korean has borrowed from Chinese and Russian, and tried to get rid of English and Japanese words. North Korea once declared it would not use foreign words except in "inevitable" cases. A Seoul National University survey conducted in 2000 found that North Koreans could not understand about 8,000 foreign words widely used in South Korea - from popstar and dance music to sports car and gas oven.

“Saying the project is an academic one with no political judgment attached, the lexicographers will include all words commonly used in the Koreas - so the "stockmarket" and "broadband" of the South will sit beside the "cunning American dog" and "peerlessly great man" of the North. "We are aiming for the combination rather than the unification of Korean words so even words that could offend one side will be contained in the dictionary," Prof Hong says. The result will be long definitions. For example, South Korean dictionaries define mije as "made in the US" whereas Northern lexicons say it is a contraction of "American imperialist".

But the academics say the project allows for inter-Korean co-operation without economic or political interferences. "If you don't have any money you can't take part in economic projects, but this is not about money, it's about our culture and our spirits," says Prof Hong. But Brian Myers, a North Korean literature specialist teaching at Inje University, warns that such exchanges might be interpreted quite differently in the North. "My impression from reading the North Korean propaganda is that they look at these things as a tribute being paid to them by the South Koreans," he says. "So there is a risk that North Korea is misreading thesituation." In the meantime, they can at least align the definition of dongmu - a close friend in the South, a person with the same thoughts as oneself in the North.”

Mocking the North Korean Accent While Arresting Those Who Use a Southern One

Jason Strother wrote in “Almost every language comes with an accent its speakers love to mock, and Korean is no exception. South Koreans enjoy making fun of the North Korean dialect, which sounds quaint or old-fashioned to Southerners. Comedy shows parody the North’s style of pronunciation and make fun of North Korean words that went out of style in the South years ago. And all that spells trouble for North Korean defectors. “I had a very strong North Korean accent," says 28-year old Lee Song-ju, who defected to South Korea in 2002. “People just kept asking me about my hometown, my background. So whenever I was asked by them, I had to lie.” [Source: Jason Strother,, May 19, 2015]

Similar issues are not treated with the same sense of joviality in the north. Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korea has stepped up a campaign to eliminate the influence of South Korean pop culture, threatening stern punishments as a senior official revealed that some 70 percent of the country’s 25 million people actively watch TV shows and movies from the South, sources in the North told RFA. Pyongyang’s latest hard line against the soft power of Seoul has taken the form of video lectures by officials showing people being punished for mimicking popular South Korean written and spoken expressions, a source who watched a lecture told RFA’s Korean Service. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

“According to the speaker in the video, 70 percent of residents nationwide are watching South Korean movies and dramas,” said a resident of Chongjin, the capital of North Hamgyong province, where the videos were shown at all institutions on July 3 and 4. “The speaker said with alarm that our national culture is fading away,” said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons. It was not clear how the statistics were derived. “In the video, an official from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] discussed the effort to eliminate South Korean words, and examples of how those using them were punished,” the source said.

The video lectures had footage of people being arrested and interrogated by the police for speaking or writing in the South Korean style. “Dozens of men and women had their heads shaved and they were shackled as investigators interrogated them,” the source said. Beyond regional dialects, aspects of the languages of North and South have diverged during their seven decades of separation. North Korea has tried to elevate the status of the Pyongyang dialect, but widespread consumption of South Korean cinema and soap operas has made the Seoul sound popular among the young.

“Authorities again strongly ordered Pyongyang and other urban areas across the country to severely punish those who imitate South Korean language,” the official, who declined to be named, told RFA. The source said the order came on the heels of a crackdown within the capital, lasting from mid-May to early July. “They found that surprisingly many teenagers were imitating South Korean speaking styles and expressions,” the official said.“In May, a total of 70 young people were arrested after the two-month crackdown by the Pyongyang police, which came as the Highest Dignity issued an order to ‘strongly wage a struggle against a culture of unusual thought’,” the official said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The arrested youth are suspected of failing to protect their identities and ethnicities by imitating and disseminating South Korean words and pronunciation,” said the official. The official said that their arrests and interrogations were filmed, so they could be used in the video that eventually was shown in the mandatory lectures. “From some time ago in Pyongyang, the trend of watching South Korean movies and dramas and imitating South Korean words and writings took hold among young people, but it wasn’t much of a problem until now, as [police] had taken bribes when catching them in the act,” said the official.

App Helps North Korean Defectors with the Language in the South

Jason Strother wrote in “Accent differences are just the start of the linguistic frustration and confusion that many North Koreans feel when they first arrive in the South. An even bigger challenge is learning all the new words South Koreans have acquired in the seven decades since partition, many of them borrowed directly from English. There’s been a lot of linguistic change, particularly in the South with the influence of globalization," says Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a refugee support group in Seoul. [Source: Jason Strother,, May 19, 2015]

“Now some South Korean researchers are trying to help recent arrivals from the North bridge that language gap. One way is with a new smartphone app called Univoca, short for "unification vocabulary." It allows users to type in or snap a photo of an unknown word and get a North Korean translation. There’s also a section that gives practical language advice, like how to order a pizza — or an explanation of some dating terminology. “To create the program’s word bank, we first showed a typical South Korean grammar textbook to a class of teenage defectors who picked out the unfamiliar words," says "Jang Jong-chul of Cheil Worldwide, the firm that created the free app.

“The developers also consulted older and highly educated defectors who helped with the South-to-North translations. Univoca’s open-source database has about 3,600 words so far. Upon first hearing about the new app, defector Lee Song-ju says he was skeptical about its proficiency. So he gave it a test run around a Seoul shopping plaza, where borrowed English words are everywhere.

“With smartphone in hand, Lee walked past several stores, cafes and restaurants, all with signboards or advertisements featuring words he says would have made no sense to him back when he first defected. The results were hit-and-miss. He stopped in front of an ice cream parlor and typed "ice cream" into his phone, but what appears on the screen didn't seem right. The program suggested the word “aureum-bolsong-ee," which literally means an icy frosting. “We didn’t use this word when I was in North Korea," he said. “We just say 'ice cream' or 'ice kay-ke,'" the Korean way of pronouncing “cake." Apparently North Korea isn’t so good at keeping English words out after all.

“But after entering the word “doughnut," Lee brightened up. “This is correct," he said. “In North Korean, we say 'ka-rak-ji-bang' for doughnuts," which translates as “ring bread." We asked an illustrator to draw some of the more interesting translations for us. You can check those out in this related story. After testing out the app in a few more locations, Univoca won over Lee. All the app’s functions are “really useful for North Korean escapees who just arrived here," he said.

North Korean English Speakers

Reporting from Pyongyang, Tsai Ting-I wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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?" [Source: Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2005]

“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.

“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.”

History of English Instruction in North Korea

According to Reuters: English entered North Korea’s education system in the mid-1960s as a part of a “knowing the enemy” program: phrases such as “capitalist running dog,” imported from fellow communists in the former Soviet Union, were part of the curriculum. “The North Korean government has acknowledged the increasing importance of teaching its students English since about 2000,” an official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry said. [Source: Kim Yoo-chul, Reuters, July 22, 2005]

“In the past North Korea’s elite students were taught English translations of its late founder Kim Il-sung’s collected works.In 2000, the North started broadcasting a 10-minute weekly segment called “TV English” that focused on rudimentary conversation. One North Korean defector in Seoul said English is also taught in the military, along with Japanese. Soldiers are required to learn about 100 sentences such as, “Raise your hands.” and “Don’t move or I will shoot.”

Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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. [Source: Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2005. Special correspondent Tsai reported from Pyongyang and Times staff writer Demick from Seoul]

“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.

When Madeline Albright visited North Korea, Kim Jong Il asked her if the United States could send over more English teachers but efforts to address that request were derailed by political issues between the U.S. and North Korea.

“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, in 2004. triple the number in 1998. "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.

Drive to Learn English in North Korea

Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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. [Source: Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2005]

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

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."

English Instruction in North Korea

Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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." [Source: Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2005]

“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.”

North Korean English Textbooks

Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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. [Source: Tsai Ting-I and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2005]

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.

“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. 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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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