By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
The 15th of April is the biggest day in the North Korean calendar. Known as T’aeyangchŏl (태양절) in Korean and usually translated as the “Day of the Sun” or “Festival of the Sun” in English, it marks the birthday of the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. This year it fell on a Sunday, and the Monday after was also made into a day off. It’s a bit like Christmas and Chinese New Year rolled into one. Christmas because students receive a gift of new uniforms, candy, stationary and other such items “from the fatherly leader” on the day. Chinese New Year because people tend to spend the day with family, watching special gala programming on the television. There are also fireworks in Pyongyang, bands playing on the street, and a variety of other celebratory events and activities.
The Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory arranged some special activities for us on the day too. The day began with a lunch banquet they had prepared for us in the dormitory restaurant on the second floor. The meal included everything from North Korean style Okonomiyaki (종합지짐), meat balls, fried fish, chapch’ae, North Korean style ttokbokki (떡볶음 in the North—adding quail egg and sausage with a more sweet and sour than spicy sauce seems to be the local twist), barbequed meat, mayonnaise potato and egg salad, fried chicken, fresh vegetables, roll cake, and of course kimchi. Pretty much every dish was a winner, and no effort was spared even when it came to presentation, with garnish and even a little rabbit carved out of quail egg alongside the potato salad. In the middle of the table was placed a small vase with some Kimilsungia flowers.
After lunch I went for a walk around Ryomyong Street with one of the newly arrived foreign students from France. We soaked in the festival atmosphere, interacted with some curious children who were fascinated to see a white person, and took some photos of the spring blossoms.
At around three we were taken to a performance in Ponghwa Art Theatre which was a part of the 2018 31st April Spring Friendship Art Festival. No photos allowed but I’ll briefly describe what we saw. An audience of Koreans, diplomatic staff (we saw the Russian ambassador’s “foreigner” oe/외 001-001 license plate car outside), and foreign students viewed performances from individual artists and art troupes from Russia, Bulgaria, Laos, Spain, Japan, and Mongolia.
About half of it was “ethnic” performances with often patriotic themes; folk songs, dancing (and a ballet performance), and a little bit of comedy. The other half consisted of the art troupes singing Korean songs. The songs they sang were mostly ballads dedicated to either Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or Kim Jong Un. A performer from Laos, wearing an exquisite gold brocade traditional dress, sang a song about Kim Il Sung in front of a background featuring the monuments of Pyongyang on a snowy winter night. A Bulgarian lady sang “A Song Dedicated to Comrade Kim Jong Il” (김정일동지께 드리는 노래). A Japanese woman (and maybe not even zainichi Korean, she had a very Japanese-Japanese sounding name) from a Korea-Japan Cultural Exchange Society sang “A World of Emotion” (인정의 세계), a ballad dedicated to Kim Jong Un’s warm love and care for his people, in a Japanese singing style that had a little feeling of enka. A Russian dance troupe did a quite lively dance involving endless backflips and dancing around swords before breaking into a rendition of “Burning Desire” (불타는 소원), another Kim Jong Un ballad. The performance ended with a Mongolian military choir singing “Footsteps” (발걸음– the first song about Kim Jong Un to come out), and “We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un with our Lives” (김정은장군 목숨으로 사수하리라). It was somewhat surreal to say the least.
After returning home to the dormitory I went outside and got some commemorative photos taken. I thought they’d make a good souvenir. On festival days such as T’aeyangchŏl photographers set up backgrounds outside on the street or in parks. Anyone interested can get their photos taken with the background. The photographer makes some edits, then prints out and laminates the photo on the spot. This service (called 즉석사진봉사 – “Instant photo service”, in Korean), usually costs about $1 USD for one medium sized photo.
I failed to persuade any of the other students in the dormitory to take photos with me, but ended up getting two on my own just outside the dormitory. With the “4.15” background I tried to flash a “V sign” but was told that wouldn’t be OK for some reason. Some kitschy flowers photoshopped in and voila!
I went back to the dormitory after, had dinner with a friend from Canada and a newly arrived student from France. After that we got pulled into a three-hour drinking, eating, and singing (and for the North Korean and Chinese men—smoking too) session with all of the tongsuksaeng (the Korean students of Kim Il Sung University who live in the dormitory with us), a Chinese and two Laotian friends. We all drank a lot of Taedonggang beer and sang all of our favourite North Korean songs to our heart’s content on the restaurant’s meari karaoke machine. We ended at about eleven. I went to bed looking forward to another day of holiday ahead. And that was my T’aeyangchŏl, 2018.