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Former expatriate discusses humanizing the people of North Korea

North Korea

Drew Kelly, a former expatriate, gives a speech on his experiences teaching in North Korea, at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences on Thursday night. Kelly taught English and business at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology over a period of four years. Peter Talbot Buy Photos

Drew Kelly said in a speech at IU Thursday night that every class has a class clown, from North Korea to Indiana. A photograph of him posing with his students in North Korea was on the projector, one of the students leaning over the back of the rest with a huge grin on his face.

“They experience the same emotions that we would here,” Kelly said. “It’s important to remember that.”

Kelly, now an independent social media consultant, lived as an expatriate in North Korea over a period of four years. He taught English and business at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology while documenting his experiences on Instagram.

In a speech to about 50 people in the IU Psychology Building, Kelly used personal stories to humanize the people of North Korea.

Kelly’s journey to North Korea began in Manhattan. After graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois, Kelly moved to New York City and was working as a male model. He said he saw a flier for a North Korean prayer group.

Through the prayer group, Kelly met a man who was applying to work at Pyongyang University. The man told him he thought God wanted Kelly to go to North Korea.

Kelly later applied and was asked to to come work at Pyongyang  University for the summer. A few days later, the government decided that they wanted him to come for a year or more. 

When Kelly taught in Pyongyang, the university was all-male with 450 undergraduates and 50 graduate students. The university now has 50 female students. He said students were able to attend the university based on a mixture of family lineage, party loyalty and test scores.

In Pyongyang, Kelly said he was able to get to know students and gain their trust. As an educator, the textbooks and curriculum he taught had to be approved by the government.

He said he was occasionally able to have spontaneous moments to teach students outside of the curriculum. One of his greatest moments was when he was able to have his students listen to the Beatles’ song “Help.”

One of the most difficult parts of living in North Korea was the surveillance, Kelly said. At one point, he thought a bump in his ceiling was a listening device. When he cut it out, it was just a piece of wood.

“You kind of go loopy after some time,” Kelly said.

Kristen Pimley, an IU senior studying marketing, said Kelly’s speech was incredible to watch, and that she hoped to one day be able to do something similar to what he had done. She said hearing these kinds of experiences is important because both North Korea and the outside world tend to demonize one another.

“You can’t just nuke a country,” Pimley said. “Their lives are not less valuable just because they were born there.”

Kelly said his hope for a future Korea is that his students will work with leaders of the outside world and remember what he taught them about foreigners.

On his last night in North Korea, Kelly said he was walking back to his apartment with three of his favorite students. He told them he hoped one day, he would be able to sit down with them and have a beer in a free and open Korea. He said that was all they could hope for. 

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