North Korea’s developing tourism industry is calling for English-language volunteers to teach future hospitality professionals in Pyongyang, The Guardian reports. The move is the latest in a series of unusually proactive steps taken by Kim Jong-un’s government to expand tourism in the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” beyond its Chinese base.
The teacher recruitment program will be run by Juche Travel Services and will accept up to five native English speakers for one-month stints in the North Korean capital. The courses will take place at the Pyongyang Tourism College, which opened last year. According to 38 North, a site specializing in North Korean analysis, the college’s existence suggests a serious commitment to building up the country’s tourism industry rather than a move born out of propaganda. North Korea likely sees tourism as a prime economic opportunity in light of the sector’s recent boost across East Asia. So far, the vast majority of tourists to North Korea have been Chinese. (The tourism sector’s expansion has come with growing pains: the South China Morning Post reports that the 237,000 Chinese citizens flocking to North Korea each year have developed a reputation among locals for “uncouth manners.”)
Given the real potential for economic gains in areas like the Masik Pass Ski Resort, the Pyongyang Tourism College’s focus on English will expand the country’s pool of potential visitors. More subtly, it could represent a change in the way that English is taught and used. While North Koreans have been learning English as part of their school curriculums since the mid-1970s — when the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States began to make it obvious that English, and not Russian, would emerge as the international lingua franca — the justification for doing so has typically been rooted in the rhetoric of defense and security. The recent shift toward English as an economic and cultural asset is a small but significant ideological change.
Indeed, instruction has long been geared toward science, technology and security rather than cross-cultural communication: the vast majority of North Koreans who learn English never interact with native speakers or even native reading materials. Journalist Suki Kim’s account of teaching North Korean college students English provides a possible glimpse into the ideology underpinning English language instruction throughout the country: when assigned to write critical essays, most students gravitated toward the evils of America as their topic. Thus, the Pyongyang Tourism College strategy of using native speakers to head up courses on language, as well as cultural issues pertaining to interaction with English-speaking tourists, is relatively novel for the closed-off dictatorship.
That’s not to suggest that North Korea will be completely mending its ways — recruited teachers are unlikely to have free reign in the country, and tourism-approved areas are certainly designed to give outsiders a disproportionately favorable impression of the country. But recognizing the economic advantages in cross-cultural openness is a step in the right direction.