By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
In this post I’d like to introduce the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory (류학생숙소), which was my home for the previous (and current) semester. I won’t be discussing the rooms, since I did that in this previous post on my arrival in Pyongyang. But I will go over the rest of the building and its facilities so you can get some idea of what it’s like to live there.
The dormitory is a 12 storey building that was built along with the rest of Ryomyong Street and opened in early 2017. There are service facilities located on the 1st (ground), 2nd, and 3rd floors. Some of these are accessible by Koreans from the outside. Foreign student rooms are located on the 4th to the 8th floors. Above that there are more rooms but they are currently empty. In my first semester here (April-July 2018) I lived on the 4th floor but due to an electrical problem with my room I had to move to the 8th floor. This semester I’ve moved back to the 4th floor.
This is the first thing one sees when entering the building from the main entrance.
You’ll see this kind of display in the foyers of most hotels in North Korea. Images from North Korean propaganda: military parades, an abundant apple harvest, scientific research, missiles on display, the DPRK football team, a water park (Munsu Water Park), and high rise apartment blocks (Ryomyong Street). But in the middle there is something quite unique:
These two pictures are demarcated with their own golden portraits within the larger golden portrait, to indicate their higher value. The left one features Kim Il Sung with a Vietnamese foreign student from a visit to the dormitory in 1965.
The one on the right features Kim Jong Il with some presumably Eastern European foreign students, dated to 1961. The same picture features in the revolutionary museum on campus at Kim Il Sung University. According to the guide, the story is that while Kim Jong Il was an undergraduate student at Kim Il Sung University he invited these Bulgarian exchange students to a Lunar New Year celebration. They were so elated that after this they penned a poem in tribute to him, praising him in perfect poetic Korean as the “great son of Mount Paektu” and the like (a copy of the poem is on display in the museum for those who’d like to further appreciate it).
Just around the corner on the left is the shop. Here one can buy a range of snacks and everyday items, charge up one’s Koryolink phone credit, and exchange foreign currency. The shop sells a good mix of local and imported products. You’ll find May the 1st Stadium ice cream just alongside Haribo gummy bears, Pringle chips and Chinese snacks, Dove bodywash and Colgate toothpaste next to Unhasu shampoo and moisturing face masks, Western liquor aside Korean soju, German orange juice rubbing shoulders with Korean Taedonggang pear juice, Naegohyang pens on top of Chinese stationary, a carton of European milk just besides Korean yoghurt, Korean dried squid and smoked duck egg in the next cabinet from Chinese sausages with bits of corn inside them, Nutella placed near a Korean soy protein fake meat snake, and so on.
The Coffee Shop
To the right of the display in the foyer is a coffee shop. Despite its name it seems to be used more as a bar, indeed it seems like a lot more alcohol is sold there than coffee. It’s a small room with two small, round tables and chairs separated by a divider, and a counter with three or so seats. The thick velvet curtains are always drawn, and the lighting is dim.
This is a good place to go if you’re just feel bored. There’ll always be someone to talk to, even if it’s the serviceperson (봉사원), the convivial comrade Jong Hwa. Speaking of Jong Hwa, the shop is supposed to close at 9pm, but sometimes our drinking sessions will go to 10 or even 11pm. She’s generally happy to stay, provided we give her some money for her taxi fare when it gets too late to catch the subway, even though she’ll half-jokingly complain that she’s running late to a date with her boyfriend.
On the first floor there’s also a laundry (which is a bit of a rip off), a barber (which is a bargain at $3 USD per cut, and she does a good job too!), and a spa and sauna (which is quite popular with locals from outside).
The Central Stairwell
The dormitory is architecturally quite an interesting building. From its retro-futuristic design and pastel hues, to a greenhouse on the roof, and lawn covered balcony areas on each side of the 4th floor, there’s a lot to appreciate. But for me the stand-out feature would be the vertigo stairwell in the middle of the building. It’s accessed from just behind display in the foyer (and there are two elevators, one on each side– one for odd numbered floors and the other for even numbered ones). Just take a look at this.
The Second Floor Restaurant
On the second floor there’s a restaurant. It serves an eclectic mix of Korean, Western, Japanese, and Chinese food. A simple meal like a bowl of Pyongyang cold noodles or soy bean soup (토장국 or 된장국 in South Korea) with rice will cost between $1 – $2 USD. The sushi is also fairly alright, and you can get a small serving for around $1.50 USD. The restaurant also serves more elaborate food such as sweet and sour fish, barbecue and more. It also serves spaghetti for about $2 USD but I would give it a miss if I were you!
There’s another section to the restaurant where we have our breakfast, which is a kind of buffet (although referring to it as a buffet makes it appear more appetising than it is) consisting of rice porridge (죽) with some side dishes (반찬) which vary on the day (different kinds of kimchi, spicy seaweed, potato or those tiny fish in spicy sauce etc.), (somewhat stale) bread with local butter and fig and other types of jam (or sometimes Chinese-style steamed bread mantou in its place) and (excessively oily and plain tasting) French toast.
The window overlooks the street and it can be quite interesting to observe people rushing to school or work while eating breakfast.
At lunch and dinner the foreign students on scholarships from their respective governments — a big group of twenty five Chinese who come on exchange for one year, and a handful of others doing longer stays plus two Laoitian students, and during the summer for about two months a group of Russians — come here and get a set meal that gets switched up every day. It’s fairly good but non-scholarship students have to pay $5 USD per meal for it.
The Exercise Room
On the other end of the 2nd floor is the exercise room (운동실). It costs about $1.50 USD per use. I guess that’s fair considering how rudimentary it is. The heaviest set of weights it has are maybe 8 kilograms. It has a single multi-purpose weights machine which isn’t too great but does the trick in the absence of separate machines for separate exercises. There’s a cycling machine, pull-up bar, and a cable crossover machine. Then there are two treadmills. One goes around in a really choppy manner, so I always avoid that one and use the other, which only has a slight aberration in its cycle. It’s always amusing to come here and see some of the other foreign students blasting Skrillex and Taylor Swift out from their phones on max volume though.
There’s also a table tennis room on the 3rd floor with a very nicely designed interior. I’ll put up some pictures of it later.
The Rest of the Building
Each floor has a room on the end for drying laundry (건조실). On the 4th floor there’s a TV room that has some foreign (mostly Chinese) channels. On the 5th floor there’s a shared kitchen.
4th floor is also where the office of “teacher” (과장님), an employee of the university’s Office of External Affairs, is located. “Teacher” is responsible for the foreign students in the dormitory. I get along with him fairly well, but for some of the other students it’s like the relationship between a rebellious teenager and a strict high school teacher. Thus some consider having a room down that particular end of 4th floor to be unfortunate.
4th floor is also where the internet room will one day be located. There’s a door with a plaque that reads “internet room” (인터네트실) on it, and we’re told that it’s coming “soon” (인차). According to some of the other students who’ve been here longer they’ve been hearing “soon” for over a year already. The old dormitory did actually have internet, so we should get it eventually. There’s recently been some activity there, so hopefully it will be open next semester.
Here’s what the hallways look like:
Each floor also has a lounge in the centre by the stairwell and elevators with some sofas:
Like the classroom doors on campus, the doors inside the dormitory have an atom ensign on them (although it is a little bit different in design to the ones on campus). It is interesting that nuclear physics thus becomes the most representative academic discipline. The elevator doors, like the ones I’ve seen on campus, bear a fountain pen and book design. And inside there’s a picture of a planet with a ring around it.
And here’s a picture of one of the 4th floor balconies. These are good spots to relax. Some students have barbecues and picnics there.
I’ll conclude this post with some pictures of the view from the dormitory.