In the 1970s-1980s, clients of Soviet barbershops were exposed to a unique form of fun. While waiting in line they could read the colorful glossy magazine Korea Today, which was widely distributed in the USSR by the North Korean authorities and, for some unknown reason, settled down mostly in barbershops.
To Soviet readers, these magazines were a window into a crazy, upside-down world.
What made these magazines particularly funny were not even the reports about yet another “on the spot guidance” by the Great Leader, but rather the way such reports were translated into Russian. The phrases like “The Great Leader Kim Il Sung strokes the breasts of all swine-herd women, making them cry” (the result of a mistranslation of 가슴 as “breast” instead of “heart”) and “the Dear Leader fathers all Korean children” inspired many salty jokes in those days.
During my studies at the Far Eastern State University in the 1980s, I gained access to many other translated North Korean propaganda materials. I have always been a giggler, and such materials used to drive me to hysterics not only with their language but also by the choice of stories.
Such publications might have led me to the conclusion that North Koreans are simply ignorant of the world around them, had I not had personal encounters with the country’s professional interpreters, who were all surprisingly proficient not only in foreign languages but in foreign cultures as well.
The only problem with these experts was that they were limited in number. They were all alumni of elite colleges such as the Pyongyang College of Foreign Languages, and their precious knowledge was to be used sparingly, not for the job of mass-producing foreign propaganda.
In North Korean cultural discourse, few subjects have had such an ambivalent status as foreign languages
My knowledge of North Korean cinematography further persuaded me that the Pyongyang elite was far from ignorant about foreign cultures. Following the advice of the Dear Leader, “Turn your eyes to the [outside] world while keeping your feet on your [native] ground,” filmmakers used to copy many foreign techniques and patterns, adapting them to their reality with a little ideological remodeling. Among their sources of inspiration were Mosfilm and Hollywood, Bollywood and the Shaw Brothers.
Yet, the success of their activity was possible only because the number of North Koreans who had an access to foreign film production was limited. These people belonged to a very narrow social stratum, and the elitist nature of their knowledge allowed them to easily hide the foreign roots of their ideas from North Korean audiences, for whom foreign languages and cultures were uncharted territory.
In North Korean cultural discourse, few subjects have had such an ambivalent status as foreign languages. The Juche state was uneager to widely open this Pandora’s box, vacillating between the practical benefits of knowing the world and the fear of the political dangers which such knowledge might entail.
Until the late 1980s, foreign languages and cultures were kept from the public light, with the exception of sporadic exposure of “American beasts” or “Japanese imperialists.”
The allegedly self-sufficient North Korean society and culture carried heavy traces of unadmitted foreign influences
Such a policy did not necessarily imply cultural seclusion, however. The allegedly self-sufficient North Korean society and culture carried heavy traces of unadmitted foreign influences, such as Soviet-style furniture or fashion inspired by the Western catwalks (often with a 20-year delay).
However, those who knew about other languages and cultures were the chosen ones. The masses did not meddle in the foreign affairs of the elite, which dosed and distilled the new information for distribution inside the country.
A popular film “Problems of the neighbors from the upper floor” (1980) tells the story of the catastrophe which results from an attempt to challenge this balance. The pretty Sun Ok rejects her fiancé, a progressive young man who voluntarily goes to work in a rural area, for a sleazy bachelor from a trade company, in the hope of going overseas with him. The girl imagines herself traveling around the world in a comfortable plane and luxury taxis, and communicating with foreigners.
Yet her dreams are shattered after her marriage: at the last moment, the young man’s business trip is canceled, and Sun Ok, who dared to dream beyond her social status, stays in Pyongyang with her ugly husband.
CHANGES IN LANGUAGE LEARNING
After the late 1980s, the newly-announced technological era brought an understanding that the country required proficiency in foreign languages across the social barriers. North Koreans undertook serious structural changes in school language education, making it more modern and technologically-sophisticated.
In the mid-2000s, English and Russian language textbooks published new editions. Along with good grammar explanations and exercises, the new textbooks included many adequate materials about the contemporary foreign world.
Interestingly enough, however, English textbooks focused not on the specifics of U.S. or Great Britain but on New Zealand, which in North Korean political imagination arguably looks the most innocuous of all English-speaking countries.
At the same time, political concerns of the regime regarding excessive exposure of the masses to the unwanted information while learning foreign languages remained intact. The new textbooks center on inward, not outward perspective. In the introduction, it is claimed that knowing foreign languages enables North Koreans to shatter all prejudices about their country and propagate the virtues of the leaders to the world. The new textbooks start with the translation of songs about Marshal Kim Il Sung and explanations, in English and Russian, about how perfect North Korea is.
Alongside with neutral and truthful information about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Ireland, global environmental problems, and popularity of the profession of designer, the English textbook contains propaganda materials which look comically outdated by both their language and the content. One dialogue in the textbook discusses the issue of racism in the U.S., and the narrator who is sympathetic to the discriminated black Americans refers to them as “Negros” and claims that regular salary of said “negros” allegedly amounts five dollars per week.
The textbook on Russia, expectedly, contains no references to perestroika. Images of Russians presented in the textbook are overall positive yet seemed to be frozen somewhere in the 1960s. For instance, geologist is claimed to be the most popular profession in contemporary Russia (the case a half-century ago).
FOREIGN LANGUAGES ON THE NORTH KOREAN SCREEN
The vacillation of North Korean propaganda between calls to learn foreign languages and a mistrust of people who take these calls too seriously is well visible in the works of North Korean official culture.
Since the late 1980s, foreign languages, cultures and personalities began to feature in North Korean films. Positive characters of North Korean literature and the films are still professionally involved in domestic affairs; yet they often are granted fluency in foreign languages (mostly English, Russian, or Spanish but, interestingly, never Chinese or Japanese).
This knowledge adds the protagonist extra chic, yet he or she never uses foreign languages for self-interest. Far from turning soft and overtly accepting to the foreign ways of life, the character uses their foreign language ability to promote the virtues of the homeland.
Take, for instance, an episode from the film “Guarantee” (보증) (1987). An old engineer eavesdrops members of foreign delegation claiming that if Korean counterparts continue to rely on their own strengths it will take them ten years to restore this factory. The engineer interferes in the conversation, addressing the prospective foreign partner of the factory with an aggressive: “How dare you say that… If you were not the guest of our factory I would spit into your face.”
The intelligent veteran actor Kim Ryong Rin pronounces these obscenities in a perfectly poised and refined manner, looking like a little boy of a good family who innocently imitates the rhetoric of street thugs without understanding its meaning.
The episode aims to demonstrate not only the hero’s praiseworthy contempt for the foreign doubters of Juche wisdom, but also the nonchalant manner in which he speaks in a foreign language. Both English fluency and bold disdain for English native speakers shock the hero’s reactionary Korean boss.
A typical positive hero of North Korean film or literature learns foreign languages without attending special courses or help of instructors, but with sporadic self-study
Apparently, before this accidental encounter with foreigners, the hero had not bragged about his English in front of coworkers; it seems that he learned it in his free time.
Indeed, a typical positive hero of North Korean film or literature learns foreign languages without attending special courses or help of instructors, but with sporadic self-study. Often, this casually obtained knowledge is positively contrasted against language proficiency which has been acquired in a conventional way, via special education institutions or long-term staying overseas.
Such is the case of the protagonist of another film “Our warm house” (따뜻한 우리집 (2000)). Like the hero of “Guarantee,” a modest obstetrician of a Pyongyang nursing home learns Spanish after regular working hours, with the purpose of introducing his hospital to foreign delegations. In contrast, his ambitious female colleague has learned Spanish while studying overseas and intends to use it exclusively for self-promotion purposes.
Yet, the self-taught man proves to be a better translator.
Very similar is the plot of the short story “On the way home” (퇴근길에) by Kim Ki Peom (2008) in which a modest factory worker who learns English in free time proves to know it better than a proud female graduate from Kim Chaek University who takes a special university course in English.
This contrasting is, of course, utterly unrealistic, providing the shortage of foreign language materials available for self-study in North Korea, such as foreign radio, films or Skype classes with native speakers.
The intended aim of such contrasting is to devalue the enormous efforts which people make to learn foreign languages; it aims to devalue the very subject of their study – foreign languages. Notably enough, this pattern of spontaneous learning is never applied to the study areas, which are considered politically important, such as the revolutionary activity of Kim Il Sung or nuclear physics.
Even more negative is the attitude of North Korean cinema to the people professionally involved in communication with foreigners, with professional translators and interpreters often portrayed as stuck up, negative, or “changing” under the bad foreign influence.
Typical in this regard is the female interpreter Sae Pyeol in the film “Our fragrance” (우리의 향기 2000) who demonstrate flunkeyism before foreigners and disrespects Korea. Only a meeting with a patriotic and nationally-oriented researcher of kimchi (who speaks no foreign languages) restores her mores.
Overall, today’s North Korean propaganda presents knowledge of foreign languages as a politically dubious subject. Yet, this line fails to influence reality: people involved in translating and interpreting enjoy a very high status (much higher than a doctor or a teacher) and very high income, while the very knowledge of foreign language paves to a person the sure road to the benefits of the more developed world.
North Korean parents these days are engulfed with education fever, and teaching their offspring foreign languages is a common objective.
And though it is too early to estimate the progress of foreign language proficiency in the DPRK, one aspect is apparently clear. The terrible language and the cultural mistakes of Korea Today of the 1980s belong to the past. Recent North Korean propaganda materials aimed at a foreign audience are written in a much more professional way.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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