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Once taboo, learning English becomes all the talk in N. Korea

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- When he spotted an Australian tourist taking in the sights at the capital's Kim Il Sung Square, the young North Korean tour guide was delighted by the chance to practice his English.

''Hello, how are you from to country?" the guide recalled asking the woman.

When she looked puzzled, he followed up with another question. ''How many old are you?"

For decades after the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea's government deemed English a language of the enemy and banned it almost entirely.

Russian was the leading foreign tongue because of the communist regime's extensive economic ties with the Soviet Union.

Now, years after the rest of Asia went through a craze for learning English, North Korea has discovered the utility of the lingua franca of international affairs. But the pursuit of proficiency has been complicated by the reclusive regime's fear of opening the floodgates to Western influences.

Almost all English-language books, newspapers, advertisements, movies, and songs are forbidden. Even T-shirts with English slogans are not allowed. There are few native speakers available to serve as instructors.

Haltingly, though, the government has started making changes, sending some of the best students abroad to study and even admitting a small number of British and Canadian teachers.

Elite students are being encouraged to speak with foreign visitors in Pyongyang at trade fairs and other official events to practice their English -- contacts that once would have been considered a serious crime.

''They are not as unglobalized as they are portrayed. There is an acceptance that you need to learn English to have access to modern science and technology," said James Hoare, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang who helped bring English teachers into North Korea.

An expatriate living in Pyongyang who is involved with the nation's English-language programs said English had replaced Russian as the largest department at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, the leading foreign-language institute.

''There is a big drive now for learning and speaking English. The Ministry of Education is really trying to promote it," said the expatriate, who asked not to be quoted by name because of the North Korean regime's sensitivity about news coverage.

Several young North Koreans interviewed in Pyongyang expressed both a desire to learn English and frustration at the difficulties. The tour guide, a lanky 30-year-old with a passion for basketball, said he had spent years studying English, including one year as an English major at the University of Foreign Studies, but still couldn't make small talk.

Aside from common courtesies, most of his vocabulary was made up of sports terminology.

''English is a common language between countries. Therefore, learning some basic English is helpful to our lives," the guide, who asked to be quoted only by his family name, Kim, said this spring.

One young woman, a member of an elite family, said she used to lock the door of her dormitory room so that she could read books in English that her father had smuggled in from business trips abroad.

Another woman, also a tour guide, lamented that she was told to study Russian in high school instead of English.

''My father said that three things needed to be done in one's life -- to get married, to drive a car, and to learn English," said the woman.

The biggest complaints of English students were the lack of native speakers and the dearth of English-language materials.

A few elite students have been trained with Hollywood movies -- ''Titanic," ''Jaws," and ''The Sound of Music" are among a select number of titles deemed acceptable -- but most students have to settle for English translations of the sayings of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. To the extent that any Western literature makes it into North Korea, it is usually from the 19th century. Charles Dickens, for example, is popular.

Joo Song Ha, a former North Korean high school teacher who defected and is a journalist in Seoul, the South Korean capital, said: ''Basically what you'll get is a teacher who doesn't really speak English reading from a textbook with pronunciation so bad that nobody could possibly understand it."

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