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‘It’s not a freak show out of some dystopian novel’

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Ronny Mintjens tells the EL Gazette about his unique experiences teaching English to trainee tour guides in North Korea, and why he is now asking other teachers to join him.

When did you first develop an interest in travelling to North Korea and why?

In 2007, I got the opportunity to join a small group tour to North Korea and we visited Pyongyang and Kaesong (including the Demilitarized Zone).

During these four days we had very little interaction with the local people and I was left with more questions than answers.

So, afterwards, working with an agency in Beijing, I managed to set up my own tours to North Korea. I gathered people from Hong Kong and nearby countries and took the trips, including a hiking and camping trip, during my school holidays. This allowed me to learn much more about the country and its people.

How did you end up teaching English there?

I mentioned to my closest ally in Pyongyang that it would be nice to be able to work with the local youth and do some teaching in one of the schools. For two years in a row, I was told this would not be possible as I am not a native speaker of English.

But in around April 2016 I suddenly received a message from Pyongyang saying that the Pyongyang College of Tourism wanted to invite me to come and work with their students for two and a half weeks in the summer. I was going to be the first and the only foreign teacher ‘professor’ at this college.

This is a five – year college of tertiary education that prepares the future tour guides of the country. Every tour group (regardless of size, from one to thirty) has two Korean tour guides attached to it.

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Did they provide you with any resources?

The college told me that I would be teaching chapters one and two of a Cambridge textbook that had been donated to the college. These were ‘advertising’ and ‘critical thinking’ – neither are areas that are particularly relevant to North Korea.

What kind of students did you have – who were they?

In 2016 I taught two classes of Year 4 students (25 girls and 3 boys) – they were in their penultimate year of college and had just graduated as official and qualified tour guides. They were the children of ordinary civilians, including teachers, soldiers and doctors – not the children of the elite. It’s interesting to note that most of the boys in the college were actually ten years older than the girls, because the boys do ten years of national service first.

What was it like teaching North Koreans?

At first they seemed a bit reserved to speak up as this was the first time in their lives that a Caucasian (and probably a foreigner of any kind) spoke to them and with them, and they didn’t quite know how to handle this.

On the first day of classes I spoke a little bit about the power of persuasive language and asked them to tell me why they liked the last movie they had watched. It turned out that they had all watched the same movie last and that they all had the same opinion on it – it was great! I knew then that critical thinking would have to be taught from scratch.

I convinced the college principal and the head of languages very quickly that the students needed personalised practice. I told them that I wanted to avoid any lecture-style teaching and that instead I wanted to do as much activity-based work with them as possible. The students’ first group did presentations, gradually followed by individual presentations on kimchi (pickled cabbage, North Korea’s national staple food), on the joguri (traditional ladies’ dress) and on North Korea’s version of the Spice Girls, the Moranbong band.

Koreans have a song for every aspect of their lives. At the end of a presentation on kimchi they will sing the kimchi song. They conclude a presentation on their pet dog with a song about pet dogs. And when they finish a presentation on the exploits of the founding president of the nation, the whole class bursts out in a rendition of the Song of General Kim Il Sung.

The more freedom in teaching that I asked for, the more I got. This was, even for me, the very first time that I felt I had full access to the minds, the hopes, the dreams and the challenges of young North Koreans – and I didn’t want those two weeks to end.

I visited for a second stint of teaching there in summer 2017, during which I taught two year levels and took excursions to various places of tourist interest around Pyongyang.

Did you have any fears/worries about going to North Korea?

No. Out of the 115 countries I have (so far) visited in my lifetime, North Korea must be in the top two of the safest countries as far as one’s person and belongings are concerned. The Koreans are amongst the humblest, kindest and most welcoming people anywhere. When we listen to the foreign media we are supposed to believe that the North Korean citizens are unthinking robots and machines who have no feelings, thoughts, opinions or dreams. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are exactly like us – they just operate in a different system (not of their own making).

 What challenges did you face?

Largely only practical ones: there are occasional power cuts in Pyongyang, and this is partly (or mainly) due to the harsh sanctions on the country.

The lack of internet access means that, prior to going to North Korea, I need to ensure that I have all the materials that I need ready on my laptop or in print. When I am in North Korea I don’t have access to a printer and there is a scarcity of good quality paper.

How hard would it be for another English teacher to go and work in North Korea?

Very easy! The college has agreed for me to bring a number of English teachers over with me every time I visit.

The college is allowing me to interview candidates and ensure that teachers want to go for the right reasons.

Korean students must not be seen as an oddity or an attraction – I don’t want people to join me so they can just go and ‘check out’ these Korean kids, spend some time with them and then let the whole world know how ‘weird’ the Koreans are or how narrow their world is.

This is a real college training real students – it’s not a freak show out of some dystopian novel. I welcome expressions of interest from any experienced teachers of English who would like to join me for a week or two weeks in Pyongyang, teaching these wonderful students and helping me break through some educational frontiers.

Teachers need to be prepared to sponsor themselves or find financial support somewhere – this is volunteaching with no employment contract.

(See web address below for more details).

Are you hopeful about the future for people in North Korea, given the apparent recent thawing of relations?

Of course we all hope that the recent developments will lead to good things and to a better future, but only time will tell. It will be a long and difficult road.

Ultimately, I would like to see the two Koreas reunite and establish the first international school right in the middle of what is now the Demilitarised Zone.

I cannot think of a more powerful and appropriate location for an educational institution that will try to bridge the distance between two very different halves of a single nation, people and culture.


 

Ronny Mintjens is head of languages at an international school in Hong Kong. For more information on how to join Ronny teaching in North Korea, go to https://www.mihunlimited.com/volunteaching.html