By Tongil Tours founding partner Alek Sigley who organised, led, and took part in the program.
Tongil Tours is excited to report that this summer we successfully ran our first ever Korean language study program in North Korea. As specialists in educational tourism to North Korea, and believers in the power of education to enable much needed cross-cultural understanding between North Korea and the outside world, this program is very much something that has been close to our hearts. Language being the primary medium through which culture is transmitted, we feel that there is no better way to further such cultural understanding than through studying the Korean language in a North Korean university.
The Background: Foreign Students in North Korean Universities in the Past
This program is something that we’d been aiming for since the very beginning. We started inquiring when Tongil Tours first started in 2013. With the help of our partners in North Korea, and a bit of luck, we were able to run this program as history’s first ever open study program in a North Korean university. In other words, it was the first time that foreign citizens of any nationality, including even US and Japanese citizens, were able to study in a North Korean university, simply by lodging an application through our website. This is regardless of occupation or academic affiliation.
North Korea has hosted foreign students for many decades. Our academic partners and associates number among these. To get a taste, you can read online about the experiences of this Guinean student, Aliou, who in the early 1980s studied at Wonsan Agricultural University, which features on our itineraries. There’s also this blog by a Russian student named Ashen who completed his undergraduate degree at Kim Il Sung University much more recently. If you can read Chinese, you’ll be able to find online quite a few journals written by some of the many Chinese university students who have gone to North Korea on exchange (see here for the English translation of the impressions of a Chinese student who studied at Kim Il Sung University for five years). These days they make up by far the largest portion at around sixty of the hundred or so foreign students going on short term exchange to the DPRK each year. And let’s not forget that high ranking Communist Party official Zhang Dejiang (张德江) studied economics at Kim Il Sung University in the 1980s.
While in the past, foreign students could be found at universities as far as Wonsan and Hamhung, these days only two universities accept international students, both of which are in Pyongyang. The first is Kim Il Sung University (김일성종합대학; 金日成綜合大學, see its official website here), North Korea’s most well-known university. It is a “comprehensive university” (종합대학; 綜合大學), meaning that it includes the whole gamut of disciplines from the humanities to the natural sciences. The other, Kim Hyong Jik University of Education (김형직사범대학; 金亨稷師範大學), is a sabom (사범; 師範) university, meaning that it specialises in training teachers. It is the top sabom university in the country, and bears the prestige of being named after Kim Il Sung’s father, Kim Hyong Jik, who worked as a teacher for part of his life. We ran our inaugural 2016 Pyongyang Summer Language Program at the latter institution, Kim Hyong Jik University of Education.
Until recently, North Korea’s bureaucracy has only ever allowed students from countries with which North Korea has had close political ties, such as China, Russia, Laos, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Germany (German Democratic Republic) and Vietnam, to study in its universities. The majority of these students were and are exchange students taking part in agreements their universities have signed with North Korean counterparts. There are also smaller numbers of students who complete undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, or pursue language study independently (i.e. not through an exchange agreement).
In 2015 emerged reports of a student from the UK, Alessandro Ford, studying at Kim Il Sung University, in which he claimed to be the “first Western student in the DPRK”. The truth of this statement of course depends on how one defines “the West”, a question we’ll leave aside for now. It can be said that Ford is either the first, or one of the first students from a former Western Bloc country to study in a DPRK university however. More importantly, this indicated an increased bureaucratic receptivity to the idea of hosting students from countries that haven’t been historical allies of Pyongyang. Since then, we have also come to know of a group of French students who studied Korean at Kim Il Sung University during the summer of 2015 for one month through their university. This more open atmosphere provided the lead up to our program, which ran from late June to mid-Jul 2016.
The First Program: What it was like to Study Korean in a North Korean University
And so our small but plucky group gathered in Beijing in mid-July 2016, not entirely knowing what to expect. One Australian (myself), one US citizen, and one French. We boarded our Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang with a mixture of excitement and trepidation in our hearts. This was the first time that anything like this had been done before.
We studied the Korean language (i.e. North Korean standard Korean, chosonmal 조선말/朝鮮말, chosono 조선어/朝鮮語, pyojuno 표준어/標準語, or munhwao 문화어/文化語 as it is variously known) at Kim Hyong Jik University of Education (KHJUE) for three weeks. Classes ran from Monday to Friday for two hours each morning. We were on tourist visas and stayed at a hotel in downtown Pyongyang. Upon arrival we were given a placement test. Two of us had studied Korean previously, the other was a complete beginner. Since our levels differed, we were each placed in a different class, and able to enjoy the privilege of one-on-one tuition and curriculums tailored to our personal needs.
Having previously received Korean language training in China, Australia, and South Korea (at Sogang University’s well-known Korean Language Education Centre), I can personally attest to the high quality of pedagogy at KHJUE. As can be expected from an institution specialising in the training of educators, our teachers were without exception top notch. The school has many decades of experience with teaching Korean to foreign students. It has and still teaches many Chinese, as well smaller numbers of Russians, Bulgarians, Laotians, and other nationalities. Some of these students, a class of Chinese and a young Bulgarian, were studying down the corridor from us.
KHJUE publishes all of its own textbooks, and it was from among these that we were taught. I found the material to contain useful grammar and speaking exercises, which helped acquaint me with commonly used expressions and vocabulary. The texts themselves introduced Korea’s landmarks and culture with warmth and humour. Themes included beach trips, explanations of the myths surrounding Mount Myohyang, and family gatherings.
It was interesting to learn about North Korean ideology through them too. For example, in the text on family gatherings, a son and daughter spend quite some time debating what their mother would like best as her birthday present. Eventually, they decide on a bouquet of carnations. At the birthday party, the son, a rocket scientist, feels pangs of guilt and apologises to his mother for failing to give her grandchildren. She responds by reminding the son he should put his work first and not forget the oath he made to Kim Jong Un when the young leader visited his satellite command centre on a customary “on-the-spot guidance” tour.
In a different dialogue, a foreign visitor and her guide discuss the Spring scenery. The driver remarks that “if it’s the most beautiful Spring scenery that you’re after, look no further than Mangyongdae”, Mangyongdae being the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. In another exercise, I had to describe scenes presented in pictures in a PowerPoint slide. One picture portrayed people flocking to Mangyongdae. Another, people playing at the beach. And another, a North Korean rocket soaring into the sky.
In another text we follow the protagonist, “Mr Smith” from an unspecified European country, as he marvels at locally produced CNC machines at the Pyongyang Autumn Trade Fair (평양가을철국제상품전람회). For those of you wondering what CNC machines are, CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, a factory automation technology which has become a motif in North Korean culture representing the cutting edge of science and technology. Images of these machines adorn bus stops and notebooks in North Korea, and a pop song about them has become a local all-time favourite; “Attain the Cutting Edge” (돌파하라 최첨단을). So when Mr Smith sees the CNC machines in the dialogue, he is so impressed that he orders twenty of them on the spot and requests technical assistance in operating them from the North Koreans. (See Andrei Lankov’s North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea for more on CNC as a North Korean cultural icon.)
Mr Smith then visits the Kumgang Mountains (Diamond Mountains) with his wife. But he finds that it’s not just the granite peaks that are nice to look at, but the women too. Upon hearing this, his wife gets annoyed and counters by saying that the men there are quite handsome as well. Mr Smith ends up comparing their guide to a “fairy come down from heaven” (하늘에서 내려온 선녀). As we were soon to discover, North Koreans love this kind of humour.
The textbook also contained some quite interesting Korean folk stories and riddles. It even included a Korean translation of the Fox and the Grapes story from Aesop’s Fables, which we read and discussed.
In-class exercises included talking about our friends back home, comparing the famous mountains of our countries with those of Korea and more. We learned to sing several North Korean songs, which helped us to better understand the emotional world of the North Korean people. We also played games such as one where were given a word and had to make a new word with the last syllable of that word (말꼬리 잇기) and so on. My teacher also taught me to play the traditional board game Yut, which is a bit like a more complex and dare I say more fun version of Snakes and Ladders. Each day we were given homework exercises, many of which encouraged us to talk with locals. For example, one required me to talk with restaurant staff to find out the specialties of the establishment, their ingredients and cooking methods etc.
Afternoons consisted of sightseeing in Pyongyang and time for homework and study. On the weekends we made trips outside of Pyongyang to regions such as Mount Myohyang, Haeju and the nearby cities of Sinchon and Sariwon, Pyongsong, and the beach at Nampo. Before concluding the program on our last weekend we finished with a trip to Wonsan and the luscious Mount Kumgang, literally “The Diamond Mountains”. With three weeks in country we were able to see a lot, going all over Pyongyang, and from the country’s East to West Coast, and down to the South near the DMZ.
During the course of this we had plenty of opportunity to interact with local people. Highlights include being dragged to sing in front of maybe at least a hundred Koreans at a Gender Equality Day (a North Korean public holiday) party at Suyang Mountain in Haeju, dancing with old folk at Buyong Pavilion in Haeju at dance celebrations on the same day, swimming with locals at Munsu Water Park on an absolutely packed weekend, and sharing Soju, a Korean liquor, with revellers at a beach near Nampo. Besides that we were able to chat and practice our Korean with restaurant staff and guides at many times during our three week study program.
At the end of the program we each received certificates of completion from the university. They certify that we studied at KHJUE during the time period that we did, and bear the university’s official seal. Our details went on file with the university and the DPRK Ministry of Education. This will be beneficial for all students wishing to pursue further, perhaps long term study on student visas in North Korea in the future.
But the best part of taking the course was no doubt our lovely and kind teachers. Mine, an affable middle aged gentleman named Mr Ri, had many years of experience teaching Korean to foreign students. He had a real knack for communicating the intricacies of Korean grammar and expression through vivid examples and lively gesticulation. Furthermore, he was a warm and friendly teacher who was able to teach me much about not only the Korean language, but also Korean culture and daily life too.
The US student in our beginners’ class, Travis, was taught by the lovely Mrs Chong. Mrs Chong specialises in teaching absolute beginners, and as Travis will attest, did a fine job of introducing Korean pronunciation and the Korean alphabet, Chosongul (known as “Hangul” in the South), as well as basic Korean grammar and vocabulary. Here is what Travis had to say about his teacher:
As one could expect, she really is the best, and I made very quick progress. Even though she doesn’t really speak English herself, you can tell she went out of her way to learn some basic words and to make a program that was catered to me, rather than to the Chinese students she is more accustomed to teaching. She’s a very sweet, motherly person, who grew to care about me very much towards the end, and was tearful on our last day. She told me that she hopes I’ll be able to come back to resume lessons with her soon — and I very much hope the same.
Over the course of three weeks we bonded with our teachers. They told us about their families, careers, and daily lives, as we taught them about ourselves and the countries we came from. They were greatly invested in our progress as students, and did everything they could to help us master Korean. When time came to leave, things even got a little emotional. Mrs Chong clearly didn’t want to let Travis go, not the least because his Korean had been improving steadily. He was the first US student she had taught, and the first friend from the US she had had too. Given the state of relations between the two countries, it’s hard to overemphasise how precious such relationships are. Indeed, on the last day Mr Ri told me that he thought “better relations between countries start with friendships between individuals”. This is at the core of what Tongil Tours is about. Building bridges where there have been walls, through which cross-cultural understanding and friendships can be achieved.
The Future: of Studying in North Korean Universities as a Foreign Student
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for each person who joined our program, the experience was life changing. Getting to know the people and culture of this fascinating and unique country while learning its language at one of its universities for three weeks is something we will each treasure for the rest of our lives. If it wasn’t already, the three week program has made the DPRK a fixture for each of us, and we each have plans to continue studying Korean and learning about the country and its culture.
As for us at Tongil Tours, we will continue to run the program on a yearly basis. For now, we will run one program during the northern hemisphere summer, around July, each year. For the sake of university students, we will time each year’s program to fit in with the summer breaks of universities in not only the northern hemisphere but the southern hemisphere as well– Tongil Tours was founded in Australia after all. We will alternate each year between Kim Hyong Jik University of Education and Kim Il Sung University. Thus even numbered years at KHJUE and odd numbered years at Kim Il Sung University.
We will keep pushing to be able to enjoy the same benefits as the Chinese and other “traditional” foreign students. We hope that in a few years, students on our program will be able to stay in the university dormitories, with local students as guides and language partners and even perhaps on student visas and in longer programs. But one step at a time.
The next Pyongyang Summer Language Program (2017) will be run at Kim Il Sung University from July the 1st to July the 22nd.
So what are you waiting for? Apply now!