Kearns said the manager of Kumsong Computer Talent Training Centre told him that in the two schools under his management, English is the most important subject. Next is computer education.
"The North Korean teachers are desperate to learn more about English. I was just about mauled for the couple modern dictionaries I took in. They loved hearing about idioms and slang, and were very open to hearing about American English and how that differs to Britain, Australia and, of course, New Zealand. There were bits of ideology, but nothing that creeped me out," Kearns said.
The New Zealander`s interest in North Korea was aroused by trips to Eastern Europe. He said he became a student of Cold War history as a leisure pursuit. He was curious to see a place where the Cold War was still underway.
"I went into North Korea for the first time in October 2004. On a visit to the Juche Tower in Pyongyang I happened upon a plaque that read `N.Z./DPRK Friendship Society 1974,`" he said.
The New Zealand/DPRK Friendship Society was established in New Zealand by Rev. Don Borrie and Wolfgang Rosenberg, who was senior lecturer of Economics at Canterbury University.
"The model of a Friendship Society was already well known amongst New Zealanders who were familiar with Friendship Societies in other socialist countries," said Borrie. "We anticipated that once it became known to the Koreans in Pyongyang that a Friendship Society had been established in New Zealand, they would reciprocate by establishing a DPRK/N.Z. Friendship Society (in North Korea). By 1973 the two Societies were in existence and communicating with each other."
Borrie said the idea to send an English teacher to Pyongyang started with Tim Kearns.
"Having already named a Pyongyang Middle School the `N.Z. Friendship School,` I asked Tim if he would be willing to return to Pyongyang to teach English. Tim agreed, so I put the proposal to the DPRK Friendship Society and they agreed to act as facilitator with the school. The school agreed and Tim became the first foreign teacher to teach in three Pyongyang schools."
Before his first trip to the DPRK in 2006 - Kearns returned from spending a month there this year - he had been teaching for 11 years.
The New Zealander emphasized that his work in North Korea is driven only by the desire to help others.
"I don`t take sides here. I went in as a volunteer to help teach students English. While there are people out there who may not be happy, for political reasons, to see foreigners going into North Korea and assisting, I am very proud of the mission and thankful for all the hard work of the N.Z./DPRK Friendship Society in getting me there," he said.
"There are a number of regimes in the world that people consider corrupt, but people still volunteer to go to these places to do something positive - even if it is very small."
The Friendship Society is not the only organization involved in English education in North Korea. The British Council has been running an English teacher training program in Pyongyang since 2000. Brian Stott, English Project manager, said in an e-mail interview from Beijing that 11 teachers had been sent to North Korea as of July. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office-funded project assists in developing English teaching capacity in North Korea. The British Council is the United Kingdom`s international organization for cultural and educational relations.
"This expertise will be used to develop English teacher training capacity within the DPRK higher and secondary education systems," Stott said. "One of the universities where we work is the country`s main teacher training institution and responsible for training teachers who will later be deployed to provincial education universities and colleges as well as schools. There is therefore sustainability built in to the project as well as an obvious multiplier effect."
In time, the project aims to facilitate improved English language education. This, according to Stott, will in turn allow more North Koreans to access educational resources and opportunities available to English speakers and to communicate effectively with them.
Teachers` day-to-day lives
Those interviewed for this article said living in Pyongyang is not dangerous, but social life there is limited to a few restaurants and bars.
When Kearns was living in North Korea, "there were lots of things that were a bit mysterious and that I`ll never know the answers to ... but I just went with the flow and tried not to get too hung up on whether I was being watched or followed," he said.
Nick Shaw, who has been an English teacher trainer at a university in Pyongyang for two years, said that his safety has never been threatened.
Shaw is one of four English teacher trainers currently living in North Korea sent there by the British Council.
"In terms of physical danger, there is nothing to be wary of as Pyongyang is a very safe place for foreigners," he said.
"However, when talking to local staff, you need to be wary of saying anything critical about the country, government, party, (or) leadership, as they will not take kindly to this and it could have a detrimental effect on your working relationship."
In e-mail interviews from Pyongyang, Shaw said foreign life there comes with dramatically reduced options. He said there are only three or so restaurants to eat lunch, only a few places to buy groceries, and a limited number of places to get a drink.
"I felt like a complete outsider, culturally isolated and rejected. Whereas I have met and socialized with locals in other countries, gone round to their houses and had them over to mine, this is a complete no-no in North Korea," said Shaw.
"In terms of nightlife, it is very limited. There are three complexes on the foreigners` compound which have a restaurant and a few bars. At the World Food Program building there is a bar with a dance floor which opens on Friday nights only and it is `the (only) place to be` on a Friday night. There are some good restaurants in town, either very Korean places that accept foreigners and foreign currency or more expensive ones in the big hotels.
"There are a few health centers with swimming pools and small gyms, both on the compound and in town, some are in the big hotels. There are football games every Saturday organized by the Russian embassy and during the summer there is tennis and golf."
Shaw said he has internet access in his apartment and is not restricted from making international phone calls, "but they are expensive."
Kearns said he was treated with more respect in North Korea than in any other country he had been to.
"In fact their hospitality got to be a bit over the top and embarrassing at times."
Why bother studying English at all?
If foreign media is non-existent, as is foreign pop culture, and there are almost no foreigners with which to communicate - and communication with the ones that are there is forbidden - what is driving the desire to learn English in North Korea?
A teacher currently living in North Korea said that he can`t see any use for English among the general population.
"I can`t see how useful it is for the average North Korean. There is no public access to foreign English media and contact with foreigners is forbidden. All literature, street signs are in Korean. There is no need."
But the teacher added that English was the most popular foreign language in the country, with Chinese a close second.
Dr. Song Jae-jung, senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has opined that North Korea has utilized English as a way of keeping up with modern science. He says North Korean leaders understand that English communication is vital to keeping pace with what the rest of the world is doing technologically.
The professor`s 2002 paper "The Juche ideology: English in North Korea," published in the journal English Today says North Korea`s early experience with English education was primarily driven by technological competition.
"... emphasis on English education seems to have been significantly motivated by North Korea`s need for scientific and technical knowledge, especially in competition with South Korea.
" ... (Kim Il-sung) and his closest associates may have come to the unavoidable conclusion that scientific and technical knowledge would be more easily obtained through the medium of English rather than any other foreign language, as indeed was the case in the rest of the world."
Also, there is a growing sliver of society with a slightly greater awareness of the outside world. That awareness is a driving force for the desire to learn the language.
"They understand it is the most important language for science, computers and business," Kearns said. "South Korea, China and Japan understand that (also). As for learning English to compete with South Korea, I don`t know and I`m not particularly interested. I taught a bloody great group of young guys eager to try out their English and learn more about the outside world. I found the students and teachers honest in their intent."
Shaw said that any exposure to the English language is almost entirely limited to schools and universities, is mostly in written form and found in old textbooks. He said that three universities in Pyongyang - with the support of the British Council - use up-to-date English language teaching materials.
Exposure to English at all is rare.
"Students and teachers at the universities mentioned above can watch some films that have been brought in by foreign teachers/trainers," said Shaw. "These must go through a censor first. As far as I know, I don`t think the average Korean has any exposure to foreign TV or radio, there are only the national channels. Only locally produced music is publicly available. The students and teachers at my university really don`t know what rock, reggae, hip-hop, pop music, etc. sound like."
"There are no English signs on buildings in Pyongyang," he added. "I do very, very occasionally see (North) Koreans wearing items of clothing with a small English label on them, but this is extremely rare."
In the two years Shaw has been working in Pyongyang, people are wearing more colorful clothing and he sees more English labels on clothes, he said.
"Outside the sphere of my work I really couldn`t say whether there is more exposure to English generally. If there is, I think it would be through approved English study materials, novels, films etc. at prestigious schools/universities, not through access to English language TV, radio, magazines and newspapers."
Depending on who you talk to, English education in North Korea is laden with various degrees of ideology.
Juche, meaning spirit of self-reliance, has been North Korea`s unofficial slogan since 1955. Its meaning over the years has shifted, and in 1996 - as the country`s economy was collapsing - Kim Jong-il added a military-first ideology to the Juche formula. It is a central part of every North Korean`s life.
"I don`t think North Korea`s English education is ideology laden. There is an intro in their textbooks that talks about studying hard for Korea closely followed by the `Song of General Kim Il-sung.` The textbook is British but they have added a Korean flavor which I don`t think is ideology laden. The odd thing comes up like, and I am paraphrasing, `The West Sea Barrage was a wonderful feat built under the guidance of Marshall Kim Jong-il,` and such, but there was nothing that had me feeling uncomfortable," said Kearns.
"As far as the (North) Korean textbooks I saw go, I never felt the propaganda was `in your face` at all. I would be interested to compare them with American or Chinese textbooks. My guess is that they would be every bit as ideology laden as any English textbook in North Korea.
"I know they have a subject called Revolutionary Studies. I guess that`s where you would see and hear that ideology stuff. I was only involved with English education and saw no other subjects in action so can only comment about what I saw," Kearns added.
Shaw said that he can notice a shift at his university to more a pragmatic philosophy of English-language education, away from ideology-laden English education. "(At my university) they are using up-to-date ELT materials, which, of course, are aimed at general, international audiences. There is a lot of interest in these modern materials."
But when asked how much, if any, ideology is North Korea`s English education laden with, he said: "A lot, it`s there in all the locally produced textbooks."
"(Ideology is) part of all aspects of people`s lives here, including education."
In terms of preconceptions, Shaw said he expected to be bombarded with regular doses of ideology. "I thought that I would be `treated` regularly to doses of ideology by the students and teachers, and that I would be expected to pay homage to the `leaders` from time to time. Fortunately, this did not happen.
"Instead, most of what we talked about centered around very everyday topics and our own lives. Maybe they see foreigners as beyond the pale in terms of their understanding of and adherence to Juche philosophy and that only `true Koreans` can be considered worthy of such political education."
Shaw said "There were times when I experienced North Koreans doing very natural, human things, and that gave me a sense of hope. They have to spend a lot of time attending lots of political meetings, singing the same patriotic songs over and over again, clapping at the right moments, etc. However, they also like to have fun, to mess around, get drunk, hang out and chat with their friends, hold their partner`s hand when walking down the street, etc.
"These things were surprising because life in North Korea is so strictly controlled and there is such a strong emphasis on following the `collective spirit`, talking politics and going on and on about how great the `leaders` are. You`d expect there to be no room for anything else, but there is, and that is refreshing," explained Shaw.
Kearns, meanwhile, said there were a lot of preconceptions he carried into Pyongyang. He said that in time, he saw North Koreans he interacted with as average people he`d find in any country.
"There were so many preconceptions that were blown out of the water when I went there. The North Koreans seemed so mysterious before but I found, in time, that they are just like us," he said.
"What I really like about their society is the fact that the family and the school are still their most important `agents of socialization.` Unfortunately, in our society, the media and peer group are having a greater influence and are more predominant as agents of socialization. The Koreans still hold true to what we would call old-fashioned values.
"I did like the lack of Western materialism and the socialist pace of life. I found it far less stressful due to them having far less stimuli and, I guess, the government takes care of many aspects of their lives."
By Matthew Lamers