By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
While exploring Ryomyong Street with Han Sol, a Korean Canadian in his 3rd year of undergraduate at Kim Il Sung University, and Sasha, a Korean Uzbek on short term exchange for the summer from his university in Moscow, I discovered this beautifully decorated musical instrument shop.
Located in the lotus flower-shaped Green Architecture IT Center (록색건축기술교류사) just above Miniso, it is named the Ryongnamsan (룡남산) Shop, after one of the DPRK instrument brands it stocks (perhaps it is run by the company much in the same manner as the May the 1st Stadium brand specialty store, which is situated not too far away).
But it sells other local instrument brands, as well as imported items such as Yamaha equipment.
The manager of the store came out and greeted us enthusiastically, chatting with us, asking where we were from and what we were doing in Pyongyang. When I told her I was from Australia, she said she knew of it was a popular tourist destination.
I was looking for a locally made guitar, so I had a look at the guitar section. I didn’t think it was likely, but I did ask the manager if there were any DPRK made electric guitars. The answer was no unfortunately. But there were two Korean classical/acoustic guitar models on sale, one for $15 USD, and another for $30. When asking the manager about the difference between these two guitars, she picked one up, rapidly tuned it by ear and started strumming away. It turns out she could play most of the instruments in the store.
Howard inquired about the Kayagums (a traditional Korean stringed instrument or zither, similar to the Japanese koto and Chinese guzheng). These cost almost $500 USD. We continued browsing. There were other Korean traditional instruments such as janggus (a double ended drum with a tapered middle), and piris (Korean flute).
And of course there was a multitude of accordions, one of the most beloved instruments in the DPRK. The cultural status of the accordion in North Korea is evidenced by a line in the song “Nothing to Envy”, which all Koreans learn in kindergarten, describing paradise as a place punctuated by the sound of the accordion. The shop had Ryongnamsan and Unbangul (은방울; “silver bell”) accordions, two well-known brands, and Kkoekkolsae (꾀꼴새; “songbird”) ones too.
In the end I decided to just get a Ryongnamsan harmonica as a gift. It was only $1 USD.
I was soon to finish my semester and go on summer holiday, so I decided to save purchasing a guitar for when I got back. Picking up the guitar again is one of the top items on my agenda for next semester, so there will likely be a follow up post. And what a better tool to rock out on than a DPRK made guitar? So stay tuned for more!