By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This is my diary entry from Monday the 16th of April, 2018
In the morning I got up and went out with Han Sol, a Korean-Canadian student in his 3rd year of his undergraduate degree at Kim Il Sung University. Sunday, the day before, had been the “Day of the Sun” holiday marking Kim Il Sung’s birthday, and we were given a break from classes on Monday too. Han Sol has a Vietnamese friend who is in his class at Kim Il Sung University, and who also attended the foreigners’ high school in Pyongyang with him for a while. She lives with her family in an apartment inside the Vietnamese embassy and she kindly invited us to visit her place to chill out, and also, importantly, use the internet (this is how I uploaded some of the previous blog posts).
We were planning to spend a lazy day making good use of this hard to come by opportunity to connect to the world wide web contacting loved ones outside of North Korea, catching up on international news, and making some essential downloads. Han Sol wanted to download Defense of the Ancients (DotA) 2. They were stuck with DotA 1 in the dormitory, the version that is a Warcraft III custom map, which I haven’t heard of anyone playing for about a decade. Han Sol’s Vietnamese friend put some anime (Detective Conan) and the South Korean period drama (!) about a vampire in Choson Dynasty Korea on the TV, which she left playing in the background. We ate a simple lunch consisting of instant noodles, and considered only going for a brief walk outside later at the most. Little did I expect that a few hours later I would be at an international event where I would find myself sitting about 15 metres away from North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Soon after lunch I got a phone call from the dormitory. They told me that we were invited to a performance of the Chinese Central Ballet Troupe (中央芭蕾舞团) that was visiting Pyongyang. The performance was in a few hours. I was beginning to find it common to be given this little notice from the university or the dormitory about events and meetings—but it was no big issue since I generally didn’t have much scheduled anyway. Han Sol and his Vietnamese friend weren’t particularly interested in going. I was on the fence. This was the third event we had been invited to this week—there’s generally a lot of stuff going on around the “Day of the Sun”, and the last two hadn’t been hugely interesting. I would also have to cut my internet time short to attend and I didn’t know when I’d next be able to get on the web. In the end I decided I may as well check it out, and rushed to finish my work in time to get a taxi back to the dormitory and get changed into a suit before departing with the rest of the foreign students and some of the tongsuksaeng (the Korean students of Kim Il Sung University who live in the dormitory with us).
We were bused to the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre. The front of the theatre was decorated with posters, messages in Chinese and Korean welcoming the ballet troupe, and Chinese and DPRK flags. We went through a security check and took our seats. In the middle of the room were a set of big, red, velvet chairs. These chairs were clearly for the VIP guests. There were two gaps for two smaller and less elaborate chairs that were placed towards the back, “for the interpreters”, I overheard someone say. We speculated as to who the guests might be. The Chinese ambassador and some high ranking Korean officials– was the consensus we reached. The Chinese students were excited to see some apparently well-known Chinese actors and actresses in attendance too. The students waved at them and they waved back before taking their seats.
Most of the audience had arrived and Korean journalists, as well as foreign journalists with their special armbands with the word “journalist” written on them in Korean, could be seen taking their positions. Several huge video cameras– including one on a crane mount which unfortunately blocked a large portion of our view, were put in place, and soon enough things were to begin.
An announcement came on proclaiming that “This performance of the Chinese Central Ballet Troupe will be attended by the Dear Respected Marshal Comrade Kim Jong Un”. Kim Jong Un then entered the room from a door in the side, together with his wife Ri Sol Ju, sister Kim Yo Jong, and some other important Korean and Chinese dignitaries (taking photos would have been considered extremely offensive and was thus strictly forbidden—so I don’t have any here). The atmosphere at that moment was electric. I had seen such things on TV many times but being there was a different thing. Koreans, who made up most of the crowd, all started clapping extremely enthusiastically and shouting “manse” (만세—Long Live) at the top of their lungs. The row just in front of Kim Jong Un in particular, turned back to look at their leader. Their faces bore looks of ecstasy and they clapped in exaggerated motions. This went on for almost five minutes despite Kim Jong Un repeatedly signalling for the audience to sit down. When everyone finally took their seats, Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju were sitting in the red chairs about 15 metres away from our group from Kim Il Sung University.
We watched the performance, which was of the “Red Women’s Legion” (红色娘子军), one of the classics of Chinese revolutionary ballet. The story was set on Hainan Island during the 1930s and featured some of the classic tropes such as evil, exploitative landlords and fearless communist guerrillas. I had never seen such a performance before so found it quite interesting. When time came for the break in the middle there was another period of clapping (but no manses) for about three minutes or so as Kim Jong Un and the other VIPs left the room. When they returned there was another round of clapping, followed by the second half of the performance. At the end of the performance Kim Jong Un and his wife went up on the stage to take photos with the ballet performers and chat with them before leaving. When Kim Jong Un left there was another long round of clapping and more shouting of the word “manse”.
After we returned home we found a recording of the performance we had just seen already being played on Korean Central Television. News of the event also took front page news the next day on the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. The tongsuksaeng who came with us spoke of the great excitement they felt at the event and the incredible honour attending such an event brought to them. I spoke to some of the Chinese students who had already been here for a few years and they said that this was about the fifth or so event they had attended where Kim Jong Un had been present—most of which had been military parades.
This was my first time being at an event attended by North Korea’s leader—I had travelled here many times leading tours in the past but tourists are rarely given such opportunities. But it appears that long-term residents and foreign students get many chances—I had attended this event barely twenty days after first arriving in Pyongyang as a student. So this was my first, but perhaps not last opportunity. I have written at length about this experience already now, but perhaps I should just add one last time that the atmosphere and feeling in the air at that moment truly is hard to put into words. Somewhere between a rock concert, one of those happy Christian megachurch events, and a political rally, perhaps? Either way I’m certain that there’s nothing else in the world quite like it.