Learning English opens defectors’ eyes to the world
Lee Geun-hyuck was an ordinary student in North Korea. He only knew a few words of English.
“My teacher in North Korea used to say, ‘You need to learn English to know your enemy [the United States],’” he recalls. “I thought that was the only reason to learn the language. It was useless to learn English.”
But when his mother urged him to cross the border and defect in 1998 at the age of 17, he started to reconsider. And when he settled into his new life in South Korea, English became an even greater necessity.
In 2012, when he was working in overseas sales for Kolon Industries, Lee stumbled upon a program called English for the Future (EFF) run by the British Council in Seoul.
Since EFF was launched in 2011, the British Council has given free English lessons to 134 defectors from North Korea. The council has sent 11 outstanding students to England for further study: seven students last year, and four this year.
Lee was one of the students sent to South Thames College in London this year for an English summer program from June 29 to August 22. The trip to England was an aha moment for Lee, especially when he had a chance to meet Hugo Swire, a Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and two other members of Parliament who wanted to hear the defectors’ stories and discuss human right issues in North Korea.
During the discussion, Swire expressed his interest in introducing a BBC World Service Korean language broadcast for citizens of North Korea to learn about the outside world. He asked advice from the EFF students.
The conversation broke down a wall in Lee’s mind toward Westerners.
“I used to regard the Westerners as our enemies on the Korean Peninsula as I was taught in North Korea, and that concept remained for a long time in my head,” Lee said. “It was shocking for me to realize those officials wanted to hear about our experiences and invest money in a program even though it wasn’t directly related to their own country.”
For Lee, the main reason he began to study English in South Korea was because he met many foreigners working in the area of North Korean human rights. Even when he was in the North, he didn’t pay attention to people who suffered from hunger, never even considering a life spent helping others, he said.
“I was skeptical about their efforts at first, but then felt ashamed, encountering the sincerity of those foreigners working for NGOs to improve human rights in North Korea,” he said.
With his hostility gradually dispelled, Lee now believes that such relatively small efforts by foreigners may be able to influence North Korean society in the long run.
“I believe there is an invisible force behind those efforts to change the North,” he says. “Who else would know about North Korea better than defectors like me? I want to help those foreigners by better explaining the situation in the North. I have found my identity in talking with them.”
Serena, who requested anonymity and the use of a pseudonym to identify her, joined the EFF in 2012 and was among the four who traveled to England this year.
Coming from an area near the North Korea- China border,
Korea and China have nearly come to the end of negotiations on a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), which have so far lasted nearly 30 months.
Ahead of a presidential summit scheduled for today between Korea and China, trade officials from both governments made last-minute efforts yesterday in Beijing, where the AsiaPacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference is being hosted, to conclude the 14th round of talks on the KoreaChina FTA.
The officials are expected to continue negotiations overnight to narrow differences on a few issues: when to open both countries’ agricultural and fisheries markets; what types of commercial goods will be freely traded; how to open the service market; and how to set product-specific rules of origin, among others.
Pending a successful arrangement, Korean Trade Minister Yoon Sang-jick and his Chinese counterpart, Gao Hucheng, will conduct a ministerial meeting prior to the summit to officially conclude negotiations.
Korea wants to categorize its agricultural products and some commercial goods manufactured by small businesses as super-sensitive items in order to protect those markets, while China wants Korea to fully open them. China also wants to keep its commercial goods market from being exposed to competition with strong Korean manufacturers.
Officials had anticipated earlier last week that FTA negotiations between Korea and China would conclude without issue, in part due to a favorable atmosphere between the two governments.
On Thursday, the two sides held an all-night negotiation session on the extent to which they would open their agricultural markets and reached some sort of agreement, according to an of-