Teaching the United Nations Charter, including its chapter on human rights, to a group of 20-something-year-old North Korean students was not something the British Council trainer had expected when moving to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). And yet, he found himself not only developing a lesson plan on the Charter, but being requested to teach the material so the North Koreans might have the opportunity to observe how the class might best be conducted. Ordinarily, discussing UN human rights values would be a non-starter in a North Korean classroom. “As in most things,” the teacher avoided opinion and “would just allow the text to do the teaching.”
Years of building rapport led to this moment.
The British Council has operated in North Korea for nearly 17 years, ever since the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reached an agreement with the DPRK in May 2000 on an English Language Teacher Training Program (ELT program), in support of the U.K.’s policy of “critical engagement.” Against all odds, this program has grown and expanded.
The ELT program distinguishes itself from other educational programs in North Korea in that the priority is for “trainers” of the British Council to teach North Korean instructors on best practices and methodology. Over the years, the British Council and DPRK have come to a negotiated balance between direct English language teaching and teacher training. And while the British Council staff is not generally involved in the setting of curriculum, they are asked to update existing materials, or write new lesson plans on request. This makes them unique, remarked an FCO official, in “that it’s the only program which does teacher training in the DPRK, or gets involved in curriculum development or producing tailored classroom materials.”
The British Council has also had measured success in reaching North Koreans outside of Pyongyang through larger-scale teacher training events. It was at these “conferences” that the British Council first noticed that teachers from outside of Pyongyang were being bused in to participate. This was a welcome surprise, since a key goal of the program is to create opportunities for North Koreans to meet foreigners. English language training also indirectly benefits the international community, as training at universities eventually improves English capabilities within the DPRK government and service sector, making for better interlocutors.
This desire to improve the capabilities of its workforce seems to have been a driving force in North Korean support for the program. In later years, it became increasingly apparent that language training was seen as a way to modernize. After operating in just three universities for 11 years, the British Council expanded to teach in three additional institutions. In 2014, the project grew again to ultimately encompass seven universities and three schools.
Why the North Koreans decided on an expansion was never explicitly explained. However, as one teacher related, 2012 was a very big year in North Korea. It was the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, heralding Juche 100, and as part of this momentous time, there was apparently a sense that education would have to catch up. The leadership also expressed that line of thinking, an FCO official pointed out, given Kim Jong-un’s 2012 letter to Mangyongdae Revolutionary School and Kang Pan Sol Revolutionary School. This letter highlighted the need for students to become versatile and proficient in foreign languages, and urged the schools to “do away with dictation, rote-learning, and other cramming methods.”
By the time of the 2011 expansion, the four British Council teachers had also been in Pyongyang almost 18 months, and remarkably, with the same coordinators/minders. The North Koreans also expressed their appreciation for the quality of programming and trainers. By 2014, the Commission of Education, the British Council’s supervisory branch of government, had a new director who himself had been taught by British Council teachers. Contact generates confidence, such that the ELT program “has not been fundamentally impacted by the shifts in the political ‘mood’ surrounding North Korea, and has proved surprisingly durable.” It’s also worth noting that unlike most other NGOs operating in North Korea, the British Council is not under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shielding it from political reprisals.
The program’s success and North Koreans’ own comments to FCO officials and British Council staff suggest that compared to a volunteer workforce, the professional training in education was key. This not only led to a higher quality of service, but frankly served the teachers well too, as they were better equipped to deal with the challenges of teaching in a restrictive environment such as the DPRK.
Additionally, the British Council benefitted greatly from close relations to its embassy. One might think that wholly independent NGOs might be more flexible in establishing programs in difficult places. However, they are also vulnerable to manipulation, bullying, and eventual expulsion. Though the British Council is “operationally independent,” the North Koreans closely associate it with the FCO. So while the British Council always tries to manage disputes with the North Koreans themselves, it helps to have the FCO close by to smooth over disagreements.
Alternative explanations accounting for the longevity of this program, such as a general lack of awareness internationally, the appeal to the DPRK of a free program, or English as a non-threatening form of engagement, hold a kernel of truth, but are not sufficient to explain away the British Council’s success. This is particularly true when considering how in 2005 the DPRK expelled most NGOs, whose areas of focus covered health to forestry. Hardly insignificant, these are areas in which North Korea struggles on a chronic basis.
All interviewees freely admitted that their program did not seek to push topics that might be politically sensitive. When in doubt, trainers sought out their coordinator, explaining why they wanted to use a certain source. And in most cases, the coordinators consented. It seems in the early days of the program, such frequent acquiescence was not the case, pointing to increased levels of trust. Consequently, the British Council uses a range of teaching resources.
The same teacher who taught the UN charter was also asked to write a course on international law and banking – the North Koreans were eager to learn about the financial collapse. So trainers use a number of contemporary materials, such as magazine articles from The Economist, or videos from its “Britain is GREAT” series.
Given recent events, tensions with the DPRK again feel insurmountable. But the implications of the British Council’s reach and its longevity make the ELT program a fascinating study for quiet engagement with the DPRK.
Charlotte Fitzek is a researcher in the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University and completing a graduate degree there. The research in this article is based on interviews with current and retired senior FCO officials and British Council staff.