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Do They Speak English in North Korea?

Do They Speak English in North Korea

Key Takeaways

Primary LanguageKorean (specifically, North Korean dialect)
English ProficiencyLimited, mainly taught in schools but not widely spoken among the general public
Purpose of LearningAcademic, potential diplomatic interactions, and elite professionals
English MediaRestricted; mostly unavailable to the general populace

The Historical Context of Language in North Korea

North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is known for its secluded nature and limited interaction with the global community. This seclusion extends to language and cultural exchanges. Historically, the Korean Peninsula was influenced by its neighboring countries, particularly China. But what about Western influences, specifically English?

The Korean Language Landscape

Korean is the primary language spoken in both North and South Korea. However, differences in dialects and terminologies have evolved over time due to the countries’ political divergence.

Table 1: Differences Between North and South Korean Dialects

North Korean TermSouth Korean EquivalentEnglish Translation
조선말 (Joseonmal)한국어 (Hangugeo)Korean language
랭 (laeng)아이스크림 (aiseukeurim)Ice cream
공화국 (Gonghwaguk)나라 (nara)Country

While Korean remains the dominant language, understanding the presence and role of English in North Korea is crucial for a comprehensive perspective.

English Education in North Korea

North Korea, despite its reputation for isolationism, does teach English in its schools. However, the depth, quality, and intent behind this education vary significantly from what one might expect in more open societies.

Curriculum and Textbooks

Starting from the early grades, North Korean students are introduced to English. It becomes a mandatory subject from the middle school level. Students use government-approved textbooks that often contain politically oriented content. These textbooks prioritize vocabulary and phrases that may be useful for official events or potential diplomatic interactions.

List of Common English Phrases in North Korean Textbooks:

  1. “The DPRK is a self-reliant nation.”
  2. “Our dear leader is the best.”
  3. “We must defend our nation against imperialists.”

Proficiency and Practical Use

The proficiency levels vary, but generally, the common citizen’s fluency in conversational English is limited. English in North Korea is primarily seen as an academic subject, not a tool for global communication.

Table 2: English Proficiency Levels in North Korea

GroupProficiency Level
Common CitizenBasic phrases, limited conversational ability
Diplomats & EliteIntermediate to advanced, depending on the individual and role
Tour Guides & InterpretersIntermediate to advanced

Those who attain higher proficiency levels usually belong to the elite class or have specific roles that require English, such as diplomats or tour guides catering to the rare foreign visitors.

Influence of English Media and Culture

Access to foreign media, including English movies, music, and books, is highly restricted in North Korea. Most North Koreans do not have access to the global internet, limiting their exposure to global English-speaking cultures.

List of Allowed English Media in North Korea:

  • English-language textbooks and dictionaries (officially sanctioned)
  • English-language broadcasts on state-controlled radio for educational purposes

Any unsanctioned possession or distribution of foreign media, including English movies or music, can lead to severe consequences.


While English is taught in North Korean schools, it is neither widely spoken nor used for global interactions by the general public. The primary intent behind teaching English seems to be academic and potentially diplomatic. The limited exposure to English-speaking cultures and media further reduces the everyday North Korean citizen’s chance to practice and understand the language in a global context. Thus, while some North Koreans might understand or speak a bit of English, expecting widespread proficiency or comfort with the language would be mistaken.