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2009/02/13 15:54 KST
N. Korea welcoming native English teachers with open arms

   By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Feb. 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is calling on Britain to send more English teachers, hoping to enhance the nation's international cooperation by raising the English proficiency of its youths, a chief British organizer said Friday.

   The British Council in Beijing, which operates the English teacher trainer program for North Korea, increased the number of its teaching staff in Pyongyang from three to four last month, following North Korea's requests to expand the program, said Grahame Bilbow, education director at the British embassy in China.

   The language of a country often berated as "enemy" has reportedly become the most important foreign language in North Korea over the past decade, replacing Russian after the fall of the Soviet Union.

   Last September, North Korea moved up the start year of English education to the third grade from the sixth, Seoul officials said.

   "The DPRK government continues to support this program, and we take this as evidence that they give importance to raising the standard of English in DPRK schools and universities," Bilbow said in an email interview with Yonhap. DPRK is the acronym of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

   With access to native English speakers scarce in the communist state, North Korea asked Britain for assistance after the two countries established diplomatic relations in 2000. The British Council started the teacher trainer program two years later.

   British instructors, recruited among those who have a diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language with at least three years of work experience, teach a small group of elite university students and local English teachers who will later be deployed to provincial education universities and schools.

   Bilbow said the program is now available at three of the top North Korean universities in Pyongyang -- Kim Hyong Jik University, the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Il Sung University. About 150 students and in-service teachers are taking the courses at each university, he said.

   The program, the only one offered in the North by native English speakers, has the full support of the Pyongyang government, Bilbow said.

   In a show of such support, Choe Thae-bok, chairman of the North's parliament, Supreme People's Assembly, told a visiting British parliamentary delegation last week that his granddaughter was learning English from British native speakers and asked the delegation to help enlarge the program, according to Radio Free Asia on Tuesday.

   "In DPRK, exposure to the wider English language teaching community has been scarce, though the project has done much to bridge the gap," Bilbow said.

   "In time, it will mean improved English language education which in turn will allow DPRK citizens to access the educational resources and opportunities that are available to competent English users worldwide," he said.

   Cho Jeong-ah, an analyst with the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said the North Korean government closely monitors global educational trends and adjusts its education system. Pyongyang believes English education will help enhance its relations with other countries and boost its economic drive, Cho said.

   "North Korean natural resources are limited, and its relations with the United States, which can draw economic assistance, won't be resolved overnight. North Korea seems to be trying to reach its goal by developing human resources," Cho said.