Authorities in North Korea have made English lessons compulsory for state security agents working directly for the foreign-educated dictator Kim Jong Un, according to sources inside the country, where the language has become more popular than Chinese among students.
Kim, who spent his childhood being educated in Switzerland, may have issued the order for the six-month English classes for special intelligence agents at the powerful Ministry of State Security, one source said.
“All State Security agents are required to take the English courses at least once,” a source in North Pyongan province whose son works in the ministry told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The ministry is an autonomous agency reporting directly to Kim, who came to power after his father Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December 2011.
“My son has worked in the State Security Ministry for three years,” the source said. “He was supposed to take the English courses but postponed them because of a household situation.”
Order from the top
Only a fixed number of agents take the lessons, so as to not create a work vacuum at the ministry, the source said, adding that the agents hated going for the classes even though the order came from the top.
“I think the English classes were initiated by Kim Jong Un,” the source said.
“Studying English is not bad or even necessary, but members of the State Security Ministry don’t like to be chosen as participants,” he said, because they must live apart from their families and won’t have a chance to extort bribes during their period of instruction.
“If they don’t receive bribes for six months, it strikes a blow to their families’ living conditions,” he said.
Details on the methods of instruction or whether universities are involved in the teaching are not available.
Learning English has been gaining ground not only with the security agents, but also with students who are just as eager as South Korean students to improve their language skills, said another source in Pyongyang, adding that there is currently an “English-language fervor” in North Korea.
English is even more popular than Chinese. North Korea’s key ally and top trading partner is neighboring China.
“Over 90 percent of high school students in North Korea choose English as their foreign language, and Chinese is next,” the source said.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim of RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.