Inside the DPRK
The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is 248 kilometers long and approximately four kilometers wide. It is the most heavily guarded border in the world. The street in front of Phil Goertzen’s downtown Pyongyang hotel is only nine meters wide, but when he steps onto the concrete sidewalk opposite the hotel, he pauses a moment to appreciate the accomplishment. Four years ago, entering North Korea for the first time was difficult, but being able to cross these nine meters of asphalt unaccompanied represents a much longer journey.
Inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea, it is becoming increasingly clear that one of the nation's most pressing needs is the ability to communicate effectively with the outside world. While English is a mandatory subject in junior high and high school, very few instructors have ever conversed with a native speaker.
A landscape 80 per cent covered in mountains, the largest sports stadium in the world, Juche Tower, and 23 million citizens unquestioningly loyal to their leader — this is what Phil Goertzen expected to find when he first travelled to North Korea. And he did. What he didn’t expect was that a trusting relationship with the North Korean Ministry of Education would allow him to see so much more, and that what he found inside the DPRK would bring him back to the country again and again.
Radios? Yes. Electronics? Yes. Printed materials? Yes. As the Russian-made Ilyushin Il-62 approaches Pyongyang International Airport, Goertzen and three other TWU team members, professor Dave Lindsay, and former TWU students, Hannah Visser and Ben Bauman, work their way down the list of materials they must declare upon entering North Korea. By the time they finish with their customs declarations cards, almost every box is checked.
Buses transfer the passengers from the plane to the terminal. Other travelers include diplomats, non-profit volunteers, and UN workers. An international flight lands here, at the largest airport in the country, about once a week and fills it to capacity, unloading roughly 200 people.
A translator and a representative from the Ministry of Education greet the TWU team as soon as they step off the bus, leading them away from the customs gate and through a second entrance. While the rest of the passengers line up at the customs gate, the team drinks tea in a private lounge, unsure why they are receiving this unusual VIP treatment.
A car waits outside to take them to their hotel. On the way, the car stops unexpectedly. The translator explains that this is an essential stop after arriving in North Korea: a visit to the 20-metre high bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. They are given flowers to place at the statue’s base.
Their hotel room boasts a television with one channel: the official national station.
For the next week, the team shares English instruction methodology with classes of 15 to 30 students. The Canadians recognize that these students are instructors of English, but they don’t know they are teaching some of the most gifted teachers and top decision makers in the nation’s education system. At every opportunity, the students ask questions about English as it is spoken in North America: “What idioms are common in Canada? Do people really say ‘I need to answer the call of nature?’” During, between, and after teaching sessions, Goertzen, Lindsay, Visser, and Bauman are closely monitored, escorted wherever they go, and advised on the best places to take photos. When they try to cross the street unaccompanied, their guides, concerned for their safety, call them back into the hotel.
By 2008, Goertzen, Lindsay, and Visser have already led teams of TWU professors and graduates to North Korea five times. No longer highly monitored, they can walk freely throughout the city of Pyongyang and use informal breaks during lessons to chat with students. “They ask us everything,” Goertzen says, “intelligent questions about politics, education, and religion, and we answer them as openly and honestly as we can. This really shows the great change and trust we are now experiencing.”
TWU continues to build its relationship with the North Korean Ministry of Education. In 2005, Goertzen negotiated with North Korean representatives at the United Nations to allow a delegation of North Korean teachers, professors, and high-level administrators into Canada. After being introduced to the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, the delegation came to Trinity Western University. Goertzen says, “As we walked around the campus we ran into staff and faculty members who took a few minutes to say hello. People were friendly, smiling, and shaking hands with our group. The delegation really liked that and told me they felt very welcome on our campus.” After touring campus and meeting with the provost, Dennis Jameson, Ph.D., and vice provost, Robert Wood, Ph.D., the delegation specifically requested to work with twu. Now, the twu team is developing curriculum that will help North Korean diplomats communicate effectively in English. For the first time, the North Korean government is considering hosting the team and their families in Pyongyang for four months to facilitate longterm training programs.
On the team’s fourth teaching visit to North Korea, they hear singing. Here, singing can accompany most everyday activities. The first time they came here, they saw monuments and buildings; now, they see people who are exceptionally kind to children, jog religiously along the banks of the Taedong River, and love eating spicy food almost as much as they enjoy watching foreigners attempt to eat it.
When the team arrives at their classroom, some former students show them a series of newly printed textbooks. They have completely rewritten North Korea’s middle-school English curriculum based on the methodology the team shared during previous visits. The textbooks are exceptionally good.
In the evening, when Goertzen crosses the street in front of his hotel, he doesn’t pause to look back. Juche Tower, a 170-metre-high granite monument to Kim Il Sung, rises up from across the slow-moving Taedong River. From somewhere on the river, Goetzen hears a single voice — a song to the nation’s great leader. Goertzen wonders what kind of songs will be sung here ten years from now.
Except for in several specially designated areas, almost no humans have entered the demilitarized zone in the last 50 years. As a byproduct, one of the world’s most dangerous stretches of land is also one of its most well-preserved, pristine pieces of natural habitat. To Phil Goertzen, the country north of the demilitarized zone is also unexpectedly beautiful. For the professor who has been inside the real North Korea, this land is not bleak; it is rich with opportunity to open up honest and lifechanging communication between cultures that are worlds apart and people who are surprisingly alike.
by Caleb Zimmerman
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