Academic journal article North Korean Review

Teaching English to North Korean Refugees in South Korea: An Interview with Karen Choi

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Teaching English to North Korean Refugees in South Korea: An Interview with Karen Choi

Article excerpt


Alzo David-West: How did you become interested in teaching English as a foreign language?

Karen Choi: First, I would like to say that it is my delight that I am able to share a little about my experience teaching North Korean refugees in South Korea. It is my hope that this information will be helpful to others who have the opportunity to teach English to North Koreans.

My interest in teaching English began after college. For my undergraduate studies, I pursued my interest in visual arts and studied classical animation in Canada. Upon graduation, I began to realize that working in film companies entailed projects that I did not necessarily care for. It was through this experience that I realized my chance of survival in the commercial arts industry was very slim. I truly enjoyed learning to creatively express and communicate through visuals. However, it seemed very unlikely for me to find a job in a company and work on projects that I was satisfied with. Though I still have hopes to produce my own short film, this dream will have to wait. After much thought, I decided to return to school to pursue my other interests apart from the arts-language and culture.

I believe frequent traveling during my childhood influenced me in developing interests for language and culture. I grew up in a few different countries: South Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia. My first seven years of school was spent in Singapore-a very multicultural country-where I learned two of its official languages: English and Mandarin. When I moved to pursue higher education in Canada, its diversity further stimulated my interest in language and culture, so I decided to get a formal introduction to both through a one-year TESL (teaching English as a second language) certificate course. It included courses in linguistics but, as I expected, was largely focused on English education as a second or foreign language.

I enjoyed the course a lot more than I expected and proceeded to apply for a graduate program in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages). I had several short-term teaching opportunities in various contexts during those years of training, and I found myself enjoying them despite the challenges in each context. Examples of my teaching contexts varied, from immigrants to university students in Canada to businessmen and graduate students looking for jobs in South Korea. I am currently teaching full-time at Hanyang University in Seoul.

AD: How did you come to teach English to North Korean refugees in South Korea?

KC: Surprisingly, my interest in North Korea did not begin in South Korea, but during my time in Canada. The initial trigger was non-Koreans frequently asking me which Korea I was from: the North or the South. This was a common follow-up question when I told them I was from "Korea." To be honest, I was initially disappointed with their inability to distinguish South Korea from the Communist hermit country. I assumed it was common sense for the average North American to know more about North Korea. However, after being asked a few times, I started to ponder on how much I-as a Korean-knew about the secretive nation. I then came to the painful and embarrassing realization that I didn't know much about it either. To compensate, I slowly began to do some simple research on the country.

I was shocked and saddened to learn about the details of some of the incredible hardships and injustices the people of North Korea experience. It was hard to believe that other Koreans were leading such a different lifestyle just north of me. The slightest bit of encouragement for me was in learning that there are organizations that aim to help these oppressed people. However, North Korea still remained rather distant to me, and I felt powerless hearing of all the abuses in the country.

To my surprise, I inadvertently crossed paths with a few Canadian humanitarian groups that had access to North Korea. …

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