By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
Before even setting foot in Pyongyang to start my master’s program at Kim Il Sung University at the end of March, I had noted that the 27th of April would be an important day. This had already been decided as the date of the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In. The venue had also been set; Panmunjom, a.k.a. the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the DMZ.
After some busy and eventful first four weeks settling in at Kim Il Sung University and in Pyongyang more generally, I had almost forgotten about the impending meeting. Then, a few days before the date the topic came up in a discussion. I was discussing the political situation on the Korean Peninsula with one of the tongsuksaeng (local Korean students from Kim Il Sung University living in the Foreign Student Dormitory together with us), and asked him about the summit. He knew the date and reminded me that it was coming up soon.
On Friday the 27th of April I met the same tongsuksaeng. I asked him if there was any news. He said there wasn’t yet any in the domestic media but one of the Chinese students had shown him a news article from the internet that explained how Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In had shook hands once over the demarcation line itself, then again twice more on each side north and south. They then together planted a tree in the DMZ. The tree had sprouted the year that the Korean War (also known as the “Fatherland Liberation War” in the North) began, and was moved over to a spot inside Panmunjom where the two leaders together gave it soil from Mount Paektu in the North, and Mount Halla in the South, and water from the Taedong River in Pyongyang with that from the Han River in Seoul. I also learnt that North Korea’s leader had brought down the Pyongyang specialty Pyongyang cold noodles for the two and their respective entourages to eat.
Our tongsuksaeng friend was elated. He took myself and another Kim Il Sung University foreign student from France, Victor, out to dinner at the fancy Moran Restaurant (모란식당) in Puksae (북새) in downtown Pyongyang. We enjoyed fine dishes such as goose liver on lightly fried toast, bulgogi and steamed crab (those huge red ones with lots of juicy meat in the legs), washed down with an ample helping of North Korean soju. We toasted to tongil (Korean unification), and our tongsuksaeng friend professed his dream to marry a girl from the South. The possibility was drawing nearer, it seemed. He also looked forward to guiding Victor’s wife, a South Korean woman, around Pyongyang, he exclaimed optimistically. In good spirits at the recent news he insisted on getting the bill despite our objections.
Moran Restaurant itself had an interior like the modern “traditional” style restaurants in South Korea. It was designed to look like the courtyard in a traditional Korean house, mixing a fake tiled roof, slide doors, and wooden porch with plastic garlic, corn and chilli hanging from strings on the wall for a rustic look. It even had a fake well just inside the door. But the television, April Christmas tree and bulgogi smoke suckers served to remind us that we had left the rural idyll and lived in the bitter, divided Korea of 2018.
Asking around further I heard that a date for a second meeting in Pyongyang had been set in August. I also heard talk that US troops would be removed from South Korea. I don’t have proper internet access however (mainly because it’s super expensive), so couldn’t confirm these (and later heard that the thing about US troops was just an online rumour).
The next day (Saturday the 28th of April) I went for a morning jog, during which I saw the Rodong Sinmun (Worker’s Daily—the DPRK’s preeminent newspaper) from the day before (the 27th) in a plastic case in my neighbourhood. At the very top of the front page was a small rectangle containing news of Kim Jong Un’s departure to Panmunjom for the summit. This would have been the news from the morning of the 27th so no further news was given. The box had an elaborate border, demarcating it from the usual front page news which it sat atop; “News of the Respected Marshal Comrade Kim Jong Un’s Revolutionary Activities Reported in Several Countries”, “The Measures North Korea has Taken is Winning the Fervent Support of the World’s Progressive Peoples”, “The First Casting was Successfully Carried out from an Our-Style Oxygen Furnace”, and more.
I came back to the room at around three in the afternoon after going to the gym. I wanted to check Korea Central Television for news of the summit and saw that there would be a documentary on it and the “Panmunjom Declaration” at 9:42 PM.
I came back around then. I called over Victor, and together with my roommate (a local Korean student of Kim Il Sung University) the three of us watched the roughly half hour long feature on the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom with rapt attention. We saw the historic handshakes, the tree planting, the performances and the banquet together with the wives of the leaders of the two Koreas. My roommate puffed from a cigarette while smiling broadly. “This is a Great Day”, he said.
The optimism was palpable. The other foreign students in the dormitory told me of how their teachers had interrupted the usual lessons to gush about the summit. But after a brief but no doubt well-deserved celebration of this moment, lessons, and life, had to go on.
Two days after the summit (Sunday the 29th of April), Victor and I went out with the newly arrived exchange students from China (실습생, about twenty five of whom come on Chinese Government scholarships and stay for one semester, a new batch coming in spring every year) and some of the tongsuksaeng to do a little sightseeing around Kim Il Sung Square. The school was unable to provide a bus so we had no choice but to take the subway there.
This was to be the first time I had gone to the Pyongyang Metro to use it as a form of transport rather than to do sightseeing around the Metro itself, which was an experience. I also got to see some of the less frequently visited stations, each with their own unique artwork, and change between the Metro’s two different lines. We entered the Metro through Samhung Station near our dormitory not far from the front gate of Kim Il Sung University. There on the platform I saw the Rodong Sinmun from the day before (the 28th of April). It contained a four-page feature spread on the summit, with lots of colour photos and a copy of the “Panmunjom Declaration” agreed between Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In.
Later, upon returning home, I saw that my roommate had laid that exact copy of Rodong Sinmun on his bed. Normally he looked over the newspaper quickly before placing it in a plastic tray for later disposal. This was no doubt one to savour a little more than usual.
Then on Monday the 30th of April my roommate unexpectedly pulled out his smartphone and showed me a news article he had loaded on the domestic intranet (through his cellular data). It was an article from the domestic version of Korea Central News Agency (kcna.kp) about how Kim Jong Un had felt sad when he saw that the clocks of North and South Korea showed different times (Pyongyang unilaterally changed its time zone a few years ago). As a result, he would have the time zone changed back. I jokingly grumbled about having to go onto our website and change all the plane and train timetables and itineraries a second time which elicited some laughter from my roommate.
After a moment of elation, we went back to our daily routines. It’s still early days, but the Koreans around me are optimistic. I am too, although perhaps a little more cautiously. A week and a bit later (on the 9th of May) I happened to see a segment on Kim Jong Un’s second visit to China on Korea Central Television. Then the next day (the 10th of May) I was somewhat surprised to see a short but sweet news clip on Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang on the TV. It contained the first mention of the upcoming DPRK-US summit I had seen in domestic media.
Sometimes I ask the others in the dormitory about whether they’ve seen or heard any more news. It’s hard not to feel like we’re witnessing history on the Peninsula right now, and to be at least a little excited about the prospect of better relations between North and South Korea and the US and North Korea. But as my French friend Victor reminded me in a witticism, it doesn’t matter, because if anything does happen, we’ll be the last to know about it.