By Alek Sigley (Tongil Tours founding partner and student at Kim Il Sung University)
Last Monday (2nd of April), barely a few days after I had first arrived at Kim Il Sung University, I went with a few of the friends I had made in the dormitory to have dinner and relax at the Koryo Hotel in Central District in downtown Pyongyang. The one Canadian and two Chinese students I met up with that evening were bachelor’s students (in other words they were pursuing four year undergraduate degrees in Korean language at Kim Il Sung University) several years already into their degrees. As a new master’s student I had not yet started class, but they had just begun their first semester of 2018 and felt in the mood to recoup after their first day back at school. Little were we expecting to bear witness to a historic act of cultural diplomacy.
We got a cab from the dormitory to the Koryo Hotel, located a skip and a hop away from Pyongyang Station in the heart of downtown Pyongyang. Engaging in a bit of banter with our convivial driver, we found ourselves there in basically no time, and paid the fare which amounted to only a few US dollars.
The hotel has been newly renovated. It was already lavish before but that was lavish with a tinge of retro. Now it was decidedly luxurious in a more modern looking way. But it was still the same old Koryo Hotel, with its great food, excellent bookstore, and the same old pool tables.
We started browsing the bookstore. It has one of the best selections of Korean-language books in any of the bookstores that cater to foreigners, with a wide range of fiction, memoirs, comics, non-fiction, and more. My Canadian friend picked up a couple of DVDs of The Boy General, a recent hit cartoon in North Korea. I got my hands on a copy of “Ode to Youth” (청춘송가), a North Korean romance novel that I had seen praised by South Korean critics, and a few other novels which the shopkeeper recommended. Even though we hadn’t asked for it, our purchases were wrapped up in an exquisite wrapping paper printed with the word “Pyongyang”, and a traditional Korean dragon motif.
We played a game or two of pool before our stomachs started to rumble. So we went over to the excellent restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel and had some of the best bulgogi I have ever had in this country, mung bean pancake—a Pyongyang specialty which I very much adore, and “tray” (쟁반) cold noodles among other delicacies.
We were intently focused on consuming our food when we noticed a commotion coming from the lobby. Journalists had begun to move in and set up tripods and cameras, and excitement and a little nervousness could be read on the faces of the waitresses in our restaurant. Then we remembered that South Korean girl group Red Velvet was in town for a few performances. They were the first South Korean musicians to perform in Pyongyang since 2003. Could they be staying here? And if so, might we bump into them? We were excited to think that we might now become a part, even if in the most infinitesimal of ways, of this historic moment of North-South rapprochement.
After finishing our dinners, we went out into the lobby. There were North Korean men in suits sitting around on the sofas, and we saw a few South Koreans who looked like they were a part of the performers’ entourage. There were some South Korean journalists around too, who we chatted with briefly. Apparently the performances had went well and were reported on in domestic North Korean news broadcasts and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. A huge bus arrived in front of the revolving door. Nobody came out of it though.
But we soon discovered that four members of Red Velvet were sitting in the bar to the side. The one member of our group who was actually a fan, a young Chinese woman, started to get quite excited at this point. She dug out her phone and showed me pictures of the group, and then motioned towards the four young women sitting in the bar, identifying them each by name. She went over to ask them for a photo and their autographs. Now I’m not much of a K-Pop fan. But given the unprecedented and historic nature of what was going on, I thought a photo or an autograph, obtained from a South Korean girl group in Pyongyang of all places, would be a pretty cool souvenir.
So we went over and found them to be really amicable. They weren’t in makeup so we couldn’t get photos with them but we all got their autographs and had a short chat with them. I didn’t bring anything to autograph, but remembered that I had the books that I had just bought from the Koryo Hotel bookstore upstairs in that nice wrapping paper. So I asked them to autograph that, and they obliged.
I took the books back home and delicately removed the wrapping paper. The result was their signatures over a decidedly North Korean background—a nice souvenir indeed, and no better way to bring the North and South together in one package.