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Teaching English in North Korea

North Korea — Pyongyang Art StudioLocated in the northern half of the Korean peninsula with the South Korea to the south and the China to north and west, along with a small of border with Russia‏‎ to the east, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) (or North Korea as it’s more commonly known) is unlike any other country in the world and, to all intents and purposes, very difficult to access for foreign TEFL teachers.

With a government that is in effect a communist monarchy, it is one of the most secretive states on the planet. Its constant threats against its neighbors, particularly South Korea and Japan, as well as its insistence on building and maintaining a nuclear arsenal, has meant that it is also one of the most isolated countries in existence. The only country in the world that has anything like a normal relationship with the country’s government is China, although it has been ever so slightly distancing itself from North Korea as its levels of dependence on international trade have grown exponentially along with its newly opened economy.

In marked contrast, North Korea’s isolationist and aggressive foreign policy has meant that it has enjoyed none of the increases in living standards that China has in the last two decades. Indeed, international sanctions, chronic economic mismanagement, and the maintenance of one of the world’s largest militaries has meant that North Koreans are now probably worse off than they ever have been before.

TEFL in North Korea

Although for many years Chinese was the most popular foreign language for North Koreans, more recently English has started to gain ground. The current dictator Kim Jong Un was educated in Switzerland and speaks English; he has dictated that English is taught to many officials (including the North Korean secret service) and even amongst general students English is proving a popular choice.

But it must be said that currently North Korea is not one of the more popular destinations for English teachers. While the capital, Pyongnang, is safe, what strikes most people who visit dictatorships is the fact that they are actually quite boring places to live once one has settled in. What is clear, however, is that obtaining a teaching position in the country will bring you into contact with a society unlike any other, albeit one where your every movement and possibly conversation will be monitored by government minders.

North Korea is very strict about allowing foreigners to enter the country and this extends to working also. Anecdotally, there are stories of employment recruiters and North Korean consulates offering positions, but these should be approached with caution.

Those who have found work in North Korea tend to have the usual qualifications for teachers, namely a degree and a TEFL certificate.

One option that is available is to apply through the British Council‏‎, which organizes teacher placements in the country. Though miniscule in number, they offer free flights, competitive salaries and accommodation upon arrival. The small number of positions means that the qualification requirements are quite high with a degree and/or a DELTA‏‎ certificate being the minimum. Unfortunately, due to restrictions, even these positions are open only to those holding valid UK passports. Also, the Council makes clear that although exceptions could possibly be made for married couples, these are unaccompanied posts, meaning that you travel to the country alone.

If, then, you are determined to teach in North Korea then your first approach should be the British Council if you are a UK teacher or otherwise visit your nearest North Korean embassy or consulate and see if they are able to help.

Issues on Living in North Korea

Even when just visiting North Korea, extreme caution should be exercised in the sharing of opinions or even just making simple observations, particularly regarding the country’s leading family. One American visitor to the country found himself imprisoned for a week when he ill-advisedly querying why the country’s now deceased “Dear Leader”, Kim Yong Il, was so fat when the vast majority of the country’s citizens were so thin.

Some missionary organizations try to send missionaries to North Korea disguised as teachers but be very wary of this. In 2014 a visitor who left a bible in a public area was arrested for disseminating religious information.

photo credit: (stephan) via cc

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