I walked straight into the classroom and announced, “I’m thinking of a country. Ask me questions, and figure out which country I’m thinking of.”
We quite often begin classes with a little puzzle or something slightly unorthodox, mainly because I find it so much more interesting than showing up and simply writing the topic on the board. I want my students to engage with the subject closely from the outset, and what better way to begin than ask them to puzzle things out?
We quickly established - through only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers from me - that this country was in Asia, was not large, was not China, was not a neighbor of Vietnam, and was very poor. After that, my students honed in on our topic area very quickly: North Korea.
6 Stages of an ESL Class on the Korean Conflict
I immediately elicited as much as my students could tell me about this remarkably inscrutable nation state. They knew the name of its leader, Kim Jong-Un (sometimes transliterated into their own language) and some knew its capital, Pyongyang. Then, I elicited adjectives to describe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Writing these quickly on the board, we established a vocabulary baseline which would prove very useful; my own additions to the vocab list (quickly presented, drilled and controlled-practiced during the elicitation) are in bold:
Separated, alone, unique, insular, reclusive, ‘bamboo curtain’
Censored, controlled, strict, ‘police state’
Famine, failure, starvation, malnutrition, disaster
Militarized, aggressive, bellicose
Intransigent, stubborn, unyielding, unhelpful, selfish
Autocratic / autocracy, single-party rule, communist
I reminded my students to try to avoid judgment but simply to see this unique country as it is. In eliciting these descriptions, though, it was easy to see that my students had gained a view of the DPRK as warlike and unpredictable, a nation led by an autocrat who might pose a danger to world peace.
A Little History
I set my students the research question: Why do we have two Koreas? Sure, I could have given them a brief lecture about the Soviet ejection of Japanese forces and the partitioning of Korea into two occupied zones at the end of the Second World War, but it’s so much more fun for everyone if these tasks are delegated. There’s no need to complicate things, either: Wikipedia is fine for research like this where straightforward historical facts are at a premium.
This is also a great way to bring in the context of the Cold War, the ideological superpower conflict which defined world affairs in the 1950s (and until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). Contrast the United States, with its banner of relative democracy and freedom, with the approach taken by the Soviet Union, which continued to occupy countries it had liberated in World War II, often installing hard-line communist governments and helping to establish secret police organizations. East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania are all examples.
The Premiere of the USSR at the time, Josef Stalin (who we’ll meet again in a moment) recommended that the North prepare to invade the South in a quick Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’) intended to unify the two states under communism. The invasion scored initial successes but was then driven back toward the Chinese border by combined South Korean and United Nations forces, and only a massive Chinese intervention forced the stalemate which resulted in the 1953 armistice. Three million soldiers and civilians died. The Cold War had most definitely expanded to Asia; Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos then became the key ideological battlegrounds of the 1960s and 70s.
A quick aside, if I may, about research. Some would consider it foolhardy, or even simply dishonest, for a teacher to walk into a classroom and appear to profess expertise in a topic about which they know little. The trick, I’ve always found, is to know enough to sound knowledgeable, and then hand over the fact-finding and discussions to the students as quickly as possible. Arming yourself with twenty minutes of background research is often plentiful preparation for a lesson like this; you don’t have to be a deep expert on something to provoke research and discussion about it.
How Are the Two Koreas Different?
I felt the need to elicit the chief ideological differences between Capitalism and Communism. In the DPRK, all economic activity is controlled and regulated by the state, which runs a relatively lavish welfare system, offering free medical care and education to everyone. It’s impossible to pay income tax in North Korea. The country is extremely heavily militarized, with the world’s fourth largest standing army, and some 25% of young men are involved in a branch of the armed forces.
The South has operated under democratic principles and has meaningful multi-party elections. Private enterprise is encouraged, as is a forward-thinking, cosmopolitan outlook seldom found in the North. Access to the Internet is unfettered; this contrasts with the truly extraordinary situation in the DPRK, where the country’s internet comprises a single, ‘walled-garden’ network which is decisively controlled by the state and features less than 5000 web pages. Unsurprisingly, content critical of the regime is not tolerated.
The Boss: Kim Jong-Un
Here’s where you can have a little fun. I showed my students clips from Seth Rogan’s comedy, The Interview, and took the risk of showing them a brief moment from Team America: World Police featuring Kim Jong-Il singing of his loneliness and frustrations. About half of my teenage students recognized one or another of these films, so I quickly elicited details about the ruling dynastic family in North Korea. The rest was handled during research time and a quick feedback session in which my students told me:
- Kim Jong-Un loves cheese, James Bond films and new technology
- His grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, was a noted insurgent leader who fought against the Japanese occupation
- His father, Kim Jong-Il, claimed that he scored a hole-in-one during his first ever round of golf, and that he could alter North Korea’s weather with his mind; this got some chuckles, though another group found that these claims have been debunked by the North Korean government itself.
- His estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-Nan, died in extremely suspicious circumstances after being poisoned with VX nerve gas at an airport in Malaysia. At the time of writing, this case is still being investigated, but evidence points to the involvement of the DPRK security services.
The main question I had (especially in the context of this remarkably public assassination) was this: is Kim Jong-Un dangerous?
Our conclusions were mixed. My students struggled to understand why a nation ravaged by famine and isolated by international sanctions was nevertheless spending lavish sums on its missile and satellite programs. I made the point that these missiles aren’t really for civilian purposes, and that the DPRK has test-launched dozens of military, medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) over the years.
We reviewed the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction, another Cold War legacy, and decided that Kim Jong-Un might be somewhat unbalanced and difficult to predict, but that he’d have to be stark raving mad to initiate a nuclear conflict with the United States. His country, we all agreed, would face obliteration.
We also researched the Kim family belief system, a philosophical basis known as Juche (self-reliance). This policy emphasizes comprehensive domestic production of all consumer goods and armaments; one wonders which came first: the quest for self-reliance as a national virtue, or the crippling sanctions which made self-reliance the only path available, short of starvation and collapse.
The Nuclear Problem
More than 80% of recent news articles about North Korea cover its nuclear program. Sustained international pressure has done little to defuse this potential powder-keg, and even the Chinese (the DPRK’s closest ally, by far) have made only slender headway. A six-party conference on the topic also failed to persuade the North to stop enriching plutonium and testing ballistic missiles; indeed, at the time of writing, a full-scale ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) test is being planned by the DPRK.
Here’s where we can shift from vocabulary practice, reading and the presentation of findings to a new set of skills: debating and finding compromise. I set my students the challenge of convincing the DPRK (represented by me, in my most intransigent guise) to give up its nuclear weapons program and consent to international inspections of its enrichment and missile facilities. They had some time to prepare ideas and incentives, but I took a deliberately hard line:
Student 1: Maybe if we give the North some money, they will agree. Student 6: Or forgive their debt? Teacher: We are not interested in charitable handouts from the western aggressors. Student 2: But you’re starving! You have no food! Teacher: North Korea has plentiful harvests. Student 3: Are you living in reality? I mean… Student 4: Like a fantasy. Teacher: The west constantly misunderstands North Korea. We have plenty of food. [Then, as an aside, out of character: “Offer me something I truly need.”] Student 1: What if we offered the North some bandwidth on satellites? Teacher: [Aside: “Wow, now you’re talking!”] Please provide more details on this offer. Student 2: Yes, like weather information, or communications for trade. Teacher: This is a useful proposition. [Aside: “What else do I need, guys?”] Student 3: Planes! You know, those planes that are sitting in the desert in America? We could give you hundred of planes, to help your airline company. Teacher: Would these only be for civilian application? Student 5: Civilian? Teacher: [Aside: “Help us with this… opposite of civilian, someone?] Student 6: Military! Teacher: [“Good! Civilian is only for ordinary people, not the army.] Student 3: Not military, yes. Only civilian. Teacher: I will convey your proposals to my government. [Smiles.] Students: [General applause at having broken down my icy demeanor.]
My students found North Korea simply fascinating. We stripped away the terrifying façade and found a fragile, unique country struggling to find its way, and beset by incompetent, bellicose leadership and a crumbling economy. I reminded my students that governments and peoples shouldn’t always be seen as part of the same unified whole; we feel the same way about China, assuming that government policies have unanimous public backing, when the truth is far more subtle. Once we had humanized the population in this way, my students found that they wanted to know more, and to get further under the country’s skin.
Research topics are the obvious way to go. I set questions such as:
- Could North Korea have won the Korean War if America hadn’t intervened?
- How does the Chinese government feel about the idea of a unified Korea? [Hint: As one China-watcher recently put it to me, “Beijing needs a unified Korea like it needs a hole in the head”. Concerns about refugees and the burgeoning influence of democracy on the Korean peninsula make this a no-go area for the Chinese.]
- Research and describe some recent border incidents - who was to blame, and what were the diplomatic ramifications?
- Read about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and tell the story of this unique strip of land.
I also gave my students the option of designing a cable news show (which, if you’ve read some of my other pieces on Busyteacher, you’ll know is a huge favorite of mine) or holding a version of the six-party talks intended to persuade the DPRK to suspend its nuclear research. Next time I teach this topic, I’m going to design a ‘war game’ in which my students must negotiate and compromise to avoid nuclear Armageddon.
Few nations are as misunderstood as North Korea, and her story connects richly with numerous strands of twentieth-century history.
We can see the effects of ideological conflict, isolationism and the Juche philosophy, militarization, censorship, rapprochement and negotiation, and a quite remarkable form of political stubbornness. Connecting these strands is instructive, but mainly I sought to demythologize North Korea and focus on the people who are forced to live - and forced to be loyal - within a highly constrained social structure which none of my students could imagine. It’s never a bad idea to stand in someone else’s shoes, and this topic provided very worthwhile opportunities to do exactly that.
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