Deaf advances in North Korea

north korea statue

WFD North Korea Committee Chair, Terry Riley, visits one of the world’s last communist societies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea as it is more commonly known.

The final destination of my recent trip was to a place that is still shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty: North Korea. When I was at the BBC many years ago, it was a standing joke from my boss that he would buy me a one-way ticket to North Korea, as he was sure I would not get back!

Now 20 years on, I am the Chair of the WFD North Korea project (WFD Representative Office) which is based in Pyongyang and run by Robert Grund, a deaf man from Germany. Robert was 15 when he watched a German television programme featuring the World Federation of the Deaf. The programme gave the impression that there were no deaf people in North Korea, which he found to be incredible. So he made it his life’s work to visit and see for himself and in 2006 he was granted permission to visit North Korea.

In 2012 there was a major step forward when the WFD & the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DRPK) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

Its prime objectives were: 

• Agreement of a four-year plan (2013-16).

• Establishment of the first kindergarten for deaf children

• Establishment of the Deaf Association of Korea

• Establishment of the Sign Language Interpreters’ Association of Korea

• Exchanges by Korean deaf persons attending international events

• The setting up of a small enterprise in Pyongyang to provide employment for deaf people.

So it was in May this year that a WFD delegation consisting of WFD President Colin Allen, Mrs Debra Russell President of the World Federation of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), Cecilia Hanhikoski President of the World Federation Youth Section (WFDYS), Marco Grund, (Roberts’s brother) and I set off on a journey into the unknown.

I might add it was with some trepidation and after many emails that we finally found ourselves agreeing to travel to North Korea. The purpose of the visit was to see how the work of the project was coming along, and to have a meeting with the WFD’s Robert Grund and the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD).

No one really knew what to expect. We were not able to apply in advance for our visas, we could only enter via China, and so everything was up in the air. We arrived at Beijing airport and were finally given the visas enabling us to fly to Pyongyang the capital of North Korea on that same day.

On arrival we had to go through customs as you do everywhere else, but this was very strict and we had to declare our books, phones, and also open our laptops. In one way it was quite reassuring and they were very polite.

Once through customs we met the North Korea Deaf delegation and a formal presentation and welcome was made to Colin Allen.

The drive to the hotel was quite different as the roads were empty
with almost no cars and everyone
was walking.

First stop was the customary pilgrimage to the National Square where the two statues of the Presidents of North Korea and War memorials are located. All dignitaries visiting North Korea come here as a token of respect. It was somewhat eerie and at the same time there was a sense of isolation and the unknown. It was the realisation that we still do not know enough about North Korea and what it stands for.

Once the formalities were over we began a very heavy schedule arranged for us during our stay in Pyongyang. We visited the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled, the Korean Art Association of the Disabled, the Deaf Association of Korea and the Blind Association of Korea.

The next visit was the highlight of the trip for me. Last April the first kindergarten for deaf children had opened and we were fortunate to see the great strides made there. It was interesting to see such a rapid progressive model of education and to see how these deaf children were learning Korean Sign Language from teachers who are deaf. What was really fascinating was that the children were made up of two groups. The front row were children who had been in class for a few weeks and were very animated and excited and the back row was completely new children in only their second day.

children in kindegarten

It was impressive to see the interaction between the children and the teacher. Colin and I got involved and we had a laugh with them and it proved that when a child has sign language, the world becomes their oyster. They were so animated, it was wonderful. The scene was a real inspiration for me as we continue our work back home on the Deaf Roots projects and BDA signing family day.

Next was the school and training centre. There are eight provinces in North Korea with eight schools for the deaf and three schools for the blind. All are boarding schools. We know that different countries and “old cultural patterns” still have a culture of families “hiding disabled children”, so this appeared to be a major breakthrough.

The school houses 10 classrooms that each seat up to 40 students. Only three children initially enrolled at the school, but now the number of students has risen to 20, and it was evident and pleasing to see that the teachers were proactively engaging with their students.

We also found time to visit the Deaf Wood Workshop, where they have set up an enterprise supplying windows and doors to the general public. This is part of the Vocational Training
School of the Disabled. They also have a Clothing Workshop with all deaf workers where they fulfill government contracts. All this is significant and shows impressive progress in just four short years.

What was also interesting was that the Deaf Association has its own media production department which makes general information videos in KSL. The interpreters and the school have a vital input into a regular evening news and information programme with sign language on television.

We witnessed a small class of budding sign language interpreters undergoing training. There were about 25 in all. A small but effective group and I trust the first of many.

All these goals have been achieved within such a short time scale, which is a magnificent achievement given the resources, knowledge and experience within this country. There appeared keenness to keep building on their work and a clear desire to progress even quicker now that North Korea had signed the UN Convention (CRPD).

We also took the opportunity to have a meeting with the Chair/President of KFPD where we discussed the project and the way forward, as the project ceases in December 2016.

The WFD, WASLI and WFDYS will continue to build partnerships with the Deaf Association of Korea (DAK) and Sign Language Interpreters Association of Korea (SLIAK) in the future.

On a personal note, the country and the people were very welcoming. I doubt that they see many foreigners walking around Pyongyang in bright yellow sports shirts, so yes I was the centre of attraction but in a unique way! For me it was an enjoyable and educational insight into a country and a culture I had never experienced before. Everywhere I went it was spotlessly clean and I often saw people picking up overgrown grass as they wanted the side walk to be clean and they did it with a sense of pride and duty. Everyone walks at a brisk pace and there are almost no cars. Except for the party members, everyone walked or biked to wherever they were going.

One interesting fact is that many young girls and women are employed in the army and services, but when they get married they stop and their jobs are given to a young person, so almost no one in these jobs was over 30. Family life is clearly important to them. There still seems to be a strong influence of Japanese culture and food as Japan had control of Korea during the Second World War. Many houses had their own vegetable strips.

Finally everyone knows I have no inhibitions and will do anything for a smile, so I found myself in a wedding photo while in North Korea.  I am sure they will have a tale to tell their children and families about that in years to come!

terry riley wedding party

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Capital: Pyongyang

Population: 24.5 million (UN, 2012)

Major language: Korean

Major religions: Mainly atheist or non-religious, traditional beliefs

Life expectancy: 66 years (men), 72 years (women) (UN)

Monetary unit: Won