By Alek Sigley (Tongil Tours founding partner and student at Kim Il Sung University)
On Saturday the 31 st of March I boarded my train in Dandong, China, bound for Pyongyang and not really knowing what at all to expect. I had just picked up my visa on Thursday from the DPRK Embassy in Beijing, and boarded the “hard sleeper” overnight train from Beijing to Dandong just the very next day.
I had arrived in Beijing just as Kim Jong Un had made his surprise “unofficial” visit to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping. With two summits (Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In and Kim Jong Un and Trump) on the horizon, I found myself at an interesting time to be making a long-term stay in Pyongyang as a student.
Meeting the Tongsuksaeng
Arriving in Pyongyang late in the afternoon on Saturday, I was met at Pyongyang Station by an employee from the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student’s Dormitory and two Korean students. The two Korean students were “tongsuksaeng” (동숙생; 同宿生) from the dormitory. “Tongsuksaeng” basically refers to the local Korean students of Kim Il Sung University who live in the foreign student dormitory together with us foreign students (“tong” is a Chinese character meaning “same”, “suk” means “residence”, and “saeng” is short for “haksaeng” meaning “student”).
The tongsuksaeng are around to help us out in our daily life, and teach us the local culture and language. Foreign students are usually matched with tongsuksaeng based on language, so for example tongsuksaeng who are studying Chinese will be matched with Chinese students (who make
up the vast majority of foreign students in North Korea), and I, an Australian, got matched with two in their early 20s who are studying English. The tongsuksaeng are a very important fixture of life as a foreign student in North Korea and I’ll deal with them in more detail later.
Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory—My New Home
The dormitory is only a short drive away from the centre of Pyongyang where I was picked up. It is in a new location which was just opened early last year (the old dormitory building was demolished and a new one built in a different location). It’s about five minutes’ walk from the main gate of Kim Il
The dormitory is located inside Ryomyong (“Dawn”) Street, which has been the site of Pyongyang’s most recent large-scale residential redevelopment project. Ryomyong Street runs past the front of Kim Il Sung University, passing its main gate. It houses the teaching staff of Kim Il Sung University in
its tallest tower, the “70 Storey Building”, and the surrounding buildings house additional apartment complexes and shops, restaurants, and other facilities servicing the local community. It’s also the place where the first international chain store in the DPRK can be found—namely the Miniso which is now just ten or so minutes’ walk from where I stay.
The dormitory is its own self-contained community with students’ rooms, a restaurant, a café (slash bar), an exercise room, a table tennis area, a basketball court, a bathhouse, and more. I’ll do a separate post later with a more detailed look at the dormitory and its facilities. Suffice to say it has almost everything one would need (internet is notably absent—more on that later), and the rooms and facilities are nice, clean, well-kept, and staffed by locals who are quite friendly.
Upon arriving on Saturday I was given a quick tour and shown my room. The student rooms are all twin rooms containing two beds, two desks, and cupboards. Each has its own adjoining bathroom with shower/bathtub, toilet, and sink. The rooms are decent, and to a similar standard as the foreign student dormitory rooms I had used when I was a student in China. Some rooms are shared by two foreign students, but others house a foreign student and a Korean tongsuksaeng. I ended up sharing a room with a local student, who moved in soon after I did. Take a look at the photos below (taken when I had just arrived).
After dumping my stuff in my room, I celebrated my return to Pyongyang with two of my favourite Pyongyang specialties: cold noodles and mung bean pancakes. Exhausted from the 22 hour train trip from Beijing, I went back to my room to get some well-needed sleep.
And that was my first day! Come back soon for more. In the next few posts I will talk about settling in during my first week, the dormitory’s community of foreign and Korean students, my registration at Kim Il Sung University, and more!