The Guardian recently published an interesting piece that to a certain degree removes the mantle of impermeability that covers North Korea. In other communist nations the study of a foreign language might (now or previously) be taken as a matter of prestige, however, it is mandatory for all students in hermetic North Korea, from primary through secondary school.
This does not change the fact that only those in cushy positions according to the songbun have genuine reason to be motivated by this measure, as they are the only ones who have the chance of one day putting it into practice overseas.
To clarify things a bit, the songbun is the social hierarchical system applied in this Asian nation. It is a murky system that relies on the political and social loyalty a family enjoys with regards to the Workers’ Party of Korea. Basically, the greater a family’s affinity to the Party, the more doors are opened and the more opportunities are enjoyed.
Until 2011, studying foreign languages was only mandatory for students in secondary school. But since Kim Jong-un rose to power, foreign languages must be learned starting in primary school.
Which language is studied the most? In the last decade, the emerging economy of China and its growing influence over North Korea made learning Chinese overtake the popularity of English. This has been further influenced by economic and cultural exchange agreements between the two countries.
However, until the 1980s it was Russian, though with the fall of the Soviet Union and the breakdown in relations between the two nations English took the throne that is now shared with Chinese. North Koreans, despite living in a quasi-secret environment, possess a (widely accepted) opinion that it is necessary to speak and understand English if they aspire to move forward in the international environment.