PYONGYANG – When one North Korean woman told her father she wanted to study Japanese, he said she would have a brighter future if she pursued English.
The woman went ahead and studied Japanese at a university, and landed a job in Pyongyang that requires the language. However, her father was right. Not all graduates of Japanese have been as lucky as her.
“Job opportunities are limited for a Japanese speaker,” the young woman, now in her mid-20s, said. “Some of my friends switched majors or started learning another language because of that.”
The slackening demand for Japanese in the job market stems from the deepening political rift and dwindling economic ties between the two nations in recent years, and has caused a sharp drop in the number of students studying the language.
At the elite Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, the number of Japanese majors has fallen to a quarter of what it was a decade ago as the outlook for the two countries normalizing diplomatic ties becomes murkier, according to language professors at the institution.
While Japan has never had a very positive image here due to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, bilateral exchanges meant some students still chose to learn Japanese.
“There were about 200 students of Japanese in the mid-1990s, after talks on normalizing diplomatic relations began,” a young professor at the foreign studies university said. “Now, there are only about 50 students for the entire four years.”
Japan and North Korea have never had formal diplomatic relations. While the countries have held 13 rounds of normalization talks since 1991, they remain divided over key issues, including the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and their fates.
The most popular language for North Korean students now is English, with about 1,000 of the 2,000 students at Pyongyang University majoring in it, according to the professors.
Chinese has become the second-most popular language, as trade ties between China and North Korea grow.
Russian, the leading language to study in the days of the Soviet Union, when it had extensive political and economic ties with the North, comes in third place, and Japanese is the fourth-largest group.
“For business, English and Chinese are obviously the most important languages now. This is a phenomenon that reflects the change of the times,” said Noriyuki Suzuki, a senior analyst at Radiopress in Tokyo, a Foreign Ministry-backed foundation that monitors the North Korean media.
North Korea’s critics have said the country is training language experts for espionage.
That view was backed by U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins, who was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004 after nearly four decades in the country. Jenkins said he believed the government wanted to turn his two daughters, studying at university, into spies.
Jenkins has also said that he taught English while his wife, Hitomi Soga, a repatriated Japanese abductee, taught Japanese to North Korean Army officers who later may have worked as spies.