First published at NK News on the 10th of January, 2019.
By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
“I’ve had many unique experiences, experiences of a kind nobody has really written about before”
Greetings NK News readers!
My name is Alek. I’m an Australian postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University, North Korea’s top university.
Some of you may have already seen my blog about my life as a foreign student in North Korea, From Perth to Pyongyang, which I started in April last year on the website of my tour company, Tongil Tours. Or perhaps you’ve seen me on Twitter, where since November I’ve been tweeting about my experiences under @AlekSigley.
I’m very excited to announce that from now on my posts will debut on NK News, bringing them to a whole new audience on the internet’s best place for North Korea news and analysis.
But for the sizable number of you who’ve not yet had a chance to read my blog or tweets, some introductions may be in order. You are likely curious as to who I am, how and why I ended up at Kim Il Sung University, and what I’ve been up to in my first two semesters as a foreign student in North Korea.
A bit about me
My arrival at Kim Il Sung University was by no means random. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a strong interest in East Asia—my father is an Anglo-Aussie sinologist and my mother is Shanghainese.
I’ve also always been fascinated by socialism—my father, like many in the humanities and social sciences, has decidedly progressive political views, my mother spent a tumultuous youth during the Cultural Revolution, and my favorite class in high school was history, where I took a formative semester studying the Russian Revolution and early USSR.
After completing high school, I wanted to get out of my hometown of Perth (which while a lovely place, is considered one of the world’s most isolated cities and was in 2000 nicknamed “Dullsville” by Lonely Planet) and experience life abroad.
A childhood love of Japanese animation led to a year on exchange in Japan, after which I spent a year in Beijing and two years at Shanghai’s Fudan University brushing up on my Mandarin and getting in touch with my Chinese roots.
During this time, I developed a real passion for East Asian languages. I first became reasonably conversational in Japanese, and then fluent enough in Mandarin to be able to take undergraduate classes in Chinese alongside the local students at Fudan.
At Fudan, as fate would have it, I was put on the same floor of the foreign students’ dormitory as the students from North Korea. They were mostly a bit shy, but a few would chat with me when I bumped into them around campus.
One of them, a graduate of Kim Il Sung University, was particularly friendly, and one day suggested that I visit his country to see socialism up close. Unfortunately, his kind invitation for me to visit his home in Pyongyang never came to fruition.
At Fudan I also encountered many students from South Korea, who make up by far the largest contingent of foreign students in China’s universities. This further piqued my interest in the peninsula, and I began studying Korean in 2011, eventually visiting North Korea for the first time in 2012.
In 2013, using contacts I made in the North Korean tourism industry, I established my own tour operator, the Australia-based Tongil Tours, which specializes in educational tourism to North Korea.
Through Tongil Tours, I sought to bring together my academic interest in North Korea’s history, culture, and language, a desire to further engagement and mutual understanding between Westerners and North Koreans, and the unique and fascinating experience of traveling in North Korea.
I ran Tongil Tours while finishing my undergraduate degree in Asian Studies and philosophy at the Australian National University, continuing to lead tours to North Korea several times a year. Before enrolling at Kim Il Sung University I had led well over a dozen.
I also spent two and a half years in Seoul—one year undergoing intensive Korean language study, and another year and a half on exchange at Sogang University taking courses in Korean Studies, including some very insightful modules on North Korea taught by Chung Young-chul (정영철) and Sonny Jeong (정일영).
These were conducted in Korean alongside local undergraduate students, and by the end of them my Korean had become fairly fluent.
In spring 2018 I also married Yuka, a Japanese woman I met while a student in Shanghai. Yuka had accompanied me on several Tongil Tours trips to North Korea and both of us had become quite close to my North Korean partners—who one day suggested that we have our wedding in Pyongyang, which we did.
A Chinese-Australian man and a Japanese woman have their wedding in North Korea. My existence alone causes much confusion and I apologize if it has caused you any.
At any rate I am very lucky to have a wife who not only tolerates but even encourages my zany interests. It’s being in a long-distance marriage which is the hardest part of living in Pyongyang for me.
Becoming a son of Ryongnam Hill
While at the ANU I had developed a strong interest in North Korean film and literature, which I wanted to pursue through postgraduate research.
In my final two years before graduating in late 2017, I had been pondering what to do next. Kim Il Sung University was one of the possibilities—over the years I had met several Chinese students who had studied there, and had become fascinated by their tales of wandering Pyongyang freely, living in a dormitory with local students, and taking lessons with North Korean teachers.
Getting in, however, was no simple matter. There is no open application process, and being accepted is often contingent on having contacts in-country.
Luckily, through my years of running Tongil Tours, I had made some friends who were willing to vouch for me and help me apply, although reaching the finish line still took two years of email exchanges, a personal statement, a medical exam, and a police certificate confirming that I didn’t have a criminal record.
The university also asked for a copy of my graduation certificate but interestingly, not my academic record.
Throughout the entire process I always embraced the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to go. Although in the past few years North Korea had begun to accept a small number of Western (defined in the Cold War sense) students, I knew that they were still very cautious when it came to giving student visas to people with English-speaking or western European backgrounds.
The final month before I was scheduled to be in Pyongyang was especially tense.
There was a hitch with my visa—which was eventually smoothed over—but I didn’t receive final approval until two weeks or so before I was supposed to arrive. The whole time I had a backup plan for what I was going to do in 2018.
Luckily, I didn’t need it, and on April 1 I arrived at the Kim Il Sung University campus in the Pyongyang neighborhood of Ryongnam Hill. I had finally become, as they call it, a “son of Ryongnam Hill” (룡남산의 아들).
What my blog is about
I have now completed two semesters at Kim Il Sung University. The first ran from April to mid-July and the second from September to early December, split by a much-needed six-week summer break in Tokyo.
I live in the Foreign Student Dormitory on Ryomyong Street with the university’s other foreign students and a handful of Korean students, known as the “tongsuksaeng” (동숙생/同宿生). During my first semester and the first few weeks of my second, I shared a room with a Korean student in his early 20s majoring in English.
I’m enrolled in a master’s degree in Korean literature in the university’s postgraduate school. Because I am the only foreign student in this particular program, my courses are all conducted one-on-one with the teacher.
So far I’ve taken Literary Theory (문학리론), Literary Analysis (작품분석), History of Contemporary Korean Literature (조선현대문학사), Literary Movements (문학사조론), Theory of Narrative Structure (구성론), and a few compulsory Korean language courses.
My thesis focuses on contemporary (North) Korean fiction. The title is “Research into the Characteristics of Modern Korean Novels Depicting Youth Love” (청춘들의 사랑을 형상화한 현대조선소설문학의 몇가지 특징 연구).
In my spare time I hang out with the tongsuksaeng and other foreign students. My knowledge of Mandarin helps me get along with the Chinese contingent, who comprise the vast majority of the country’s foreign students.
But my two closest friends are the two other Western students: Howard, a Korean Canadian, and Erik, from Sweden. I’ve found a fellow nerd in Howard and we spend our days playing computer games on the local area network and watching anime.
Erik shares my fascination with everyday life and culture in North Korea, and we try several new restaurants together each week.
I’ve already blogged about the only place in town where you can get South Korean-style fried chicken (chimaek), a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, Pyongyang’s (unofficial) Heineken bar, a restaurant specializing in dishes using corn, a restaurant serving authentic Chinese food, another fried chicken joint (but this one compares itself to KFC), and the closest thing you’ll get to McDonald’s in Pyongyang.
We also spend a good amount of time browsing stores all over town for interesting locally made goods—of which we’ve both amassed considerable collections.
There’s this musical instrument store, this store selling ice creams and bottled drinks, the outlet of North Korea’s most famous stationery brand, the Naegohyang Store, which carries a local sportswear brand somewhat reminiscent of Adidas (blogged about in the corn restaurant and conveyor belt sushi posts linked above), and supermarkets and roadside stalls where we’ve tracked down the first ever locally produced breakfast cereals. I also enjoy walking and cycling(here and here) around Pyongyang.
Since starting my degree I’ve had many unique experiences, experiences of a kind nobody has really written about before. I look forward to sharing my insights with you on NK News.
Previous blog posts
I’ve shared links to some of my previous blog posts in the text above, but here are a few more of the more interesting ones:
- Meeting the K-pop group Red Velvet in Pyongyang
- Sitting 15 metres from Kim Jong Un at a ballet performance
- The Singapore Summit (between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump) viewed from Pyongyang
- The Singapore Summit (part 2)
- Attending 70th anniversary National Day celebrations
- My walk to class, in pictures
In addition to this there are a few more. You can see them all at: https://tongiltours.com/blog
A note on politics
Please note that because of my studies and work in-country I generally steer clear of politically sensitive issues in my blog. At any rate, I’m not particularly interested in saying what has already been said a thousand times before about North Korea.
In my blog I aim simply to present life in North Korea as I see and experience it. I do not claim for this to be the authoritative or definitive perspective on the country, and I acknowledge that as a foreigner based in Pyongyang, it has its limitations. Rather, I see it as one of many possible perspectives, and hope that readers can combine it with all the others and draw their own conclusions.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
All photos, unless otherwise stated, belong to Alek Sigley