A Kiwi's experience teaching kids in North Korea

North Korea, New Zealand
Tim Kearns with students from Kumsong Middle School No. 1. Photo credit: Supplied

Pyongyang in North Korea and Christchurch in New Zealand might be two very different worlds but for one Kiwi teacher they are very familiar.

Tim Kearns was the first western teacher to teach at middle school in North Korea in 2006 before returning again in 2008, teaching English at three different schools including Kumsong Middle School No. 1 that overlooks the infamous Kim Il Sung Square.  

North Korea, New Zealand
Students from Taedong Middle School No. 1. Photo credit: Supplied

Mr Kearns taught 11 to 16 year-olds on two, three month stints and says the people in North Korea are like any other westerners.

"The teachers were terrific people to hang around with and they'd had very little to do with foreigners," he says.

"We constantly see them as robotic automations but they had personality, they could have a laugh, they loved a bit of humour [and] were very interested in my life and what my life was like in New Zealand."

Mr Kearns says even though the North Korean regime is present everywhere you look in Pyongyang, he never felt like they were trying to indoctrinate him.

"I could be myself, as long as you show a basic level of respect which I think most people do when they go to other countries, I didn't have to do anything special."

North Korea, New Zealand
Kumsusan Memorial Palace where President Kim Il Sung lies in state. Photo credit: Supplied

He was first interested in North Korea while living in Japan and made his first trip there in 2004 through Koryo Tours, a tour organisation similar to the one used by American student Otto Warmbier before he became fatally ill in the custody of the DPRK after being arrested in 2016.

Mr Kearns then linked up with the New Zealand DPRK Friendship society where he was able to volunteer as a teacher.

"When you walk in [to class the students] all stand in a militaristic sort of way and say good morning sir," Mr Kearns describes.

"They allowed me to teach in my own style [and] I was surprised with the level of English considering 16-year-olds wanted to come up and have a closer look at my eyes because they'd never seen blue eyes before."

North Korea, New Zealand
University students marching to celebrate their graduation in 2006. Photo credit: Supplied

Life was fairly regular outside of the classroom as Mr Kearns described playing sports with the students and teachers on Saturdays.

"I was showing them photos and I'd show them what my home was like and what car I drove and photos of rugby games, they were genuinely interested," he says.

"I managed to set a scrum with a few of the boys and [show] them photos of rugby games and a wee bit of the ins and outs [they were] absolutely fascinated."

During his trips to North Korea, the now primary school teacher, says he never saw members of the state hierarchy that was then led by the late Kim Jong-il before his death in 2011 however said military presence was evident.

North Korea
Kim Jong-Un took over North Korea's leadership following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. Photo credit: Getty

Mr Kearns says the current situation in North Korea and the tensions with the United States "saddens" him as he was able to put a human face to the people.

However the pupils he taught back then could may well bear arms against the west in defence of their now leader Kim Jong-un.

"From a human point of view I'm as worried about them as I would be in a war," he says

"I know some of the students I taught have become high up in the world of computers and there is every chance that some of them could be involved in some of the cyber stuff.

"Most academics who are very knowledgeable on North Korea believe it's not within the Kim's interest to eventually have a war, they know they'll be obliterated, they know they wouldn't stand a chance."

North Korea, New Zealand
Mr Kearns shared many social occasions with teachers outside of school. Photo credit: Supplied

The teacher now based in Christchurch says the chances of all-out war are slim and adds that he would like to go back to North Korea but now has a family to consider when making the decision whether to return to one of the most secretive states in the world.


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