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English for North Korean refugees in South Korea

Another border to cross or a path to a new world?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2020


Mee-Soo was a good student in North Korea. She came to South Korea in her early teens, and South Korean state policy for North Korean defectors enabled her to gain entry into a decent university in Seoul. She majored in Business Management and, when she had to choose her sub-major, she chose Accounting over Marketing and Human Resources because she thought she could avoid English. Achieving CPA (Certified Public Accountant) status was the goal for Accounting majors. Passing a score of 700 in the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) was a requirement to take the CPA exam. Mee-Soo worked hard studying for TOEIC and took the test ten times. Her score rose from the 400s to the 600s, but she could not pass the 700 threshold and was left behind while other South Korean students passed the English requirement. She could not even begin to study for the CPA exam itself. She once sighed and told me (one of the authors), ‘I wish I could have a life without English.’ I responded, ‘I didn't think English would be so important to North Koreans in South Korea.’ To this, Mee-Soo exclaimed, ‘It is a matter of survival.’

Given there have now been over 70 years of separation between North and South Korea since the Korean War, it is unquestionable that North Korean migrants face and struggle with a variety of troubles in their attempts to settle into South Korean society. In this context, why does English constitute a ‘matter of survival’ for North Koreans when there are so many other critical issues for these individuals, who crossed several borders at the risk of their lives? This phenomena, that ‘English’ represents a major difficulty for North Korean defectors in their process of settling in South Korea (Jung & Lim, 2009), constitutes an interesting linguistic phenomena in an intra-ethnic contact. However, by itself, this statement somewhat simplifies how English actually affects the migrant group. Instead, its influence works in a surprisingly diverse number of ways across different ranges and layers within the North Korean population, depending on their regional and social background, age, time of migration, and possibly many other factors. A meaningful pattern we discuss here is the changing relations between English and North Korean migrants according to age; it is the North Korean young adults who seem to be particularly affected by English and disproportionately in need of English teaching. We also note, though, that this pattern itself is changing, as we are seeing the recent increase of children of North Korean migrants born and educated in South Korea or in China.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s) 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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