By Alek Sigley, postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University
This Tuesday all the world’s eyes were on Singapore as it became the venue for history’s first meeting between a leader of the DPRK and a sitting US president, namely, between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and President of the United States of America Donald Trump.
As a foreign student at Kim Il Sung University, I could see that there was intense interest in the summit among Pyongyang locals, who followed the extensive domestic media coverage of events with keen interest.
In the lead up to the summit some of the Korean students in the dormitory (tongsuksaeng) had asked me what the foreign media was saying about the summit. I had started receiving the text of media articles about the summit from friends on WhatsApp (I only have internet on my phone at the moment and can browse the web, but data is extremely expensive so I limit my usage to text only on WhatsApp and the occasional email). When Trump announced he was cancelling the scheduled meeting, only to then declare it back on the next day, I noticed that the flurry of events was not mentioned in the domestic Korean media. The Korean students around me were very interested to hear about it. Upon learning about it they found it just as confusing as the rest of us. Rumourmongering took place too and I heard an erroneous claim that South Korean President Mun Jae In would also be present.
I asked them why they were so interested in news of the summit. They came back with a rather obvious answer—this was an event which could have a deep impact on the future of their country. They hoped for national unification and saw the US as in the way. They also wanted an end to the sanctions and a resolution to the sixty plus years of “war” (as yet there is still no peace treaty between North Korea and the US, only a truce) on the peninsula. What did they expect of the summit? I asked. For it to be a “success” of course. But as for what “success” meant exactly they weren’t sure, but were happy to leave that in the hands of their leader.
After the summit was off and back on again, I was repeatedly asked about whether there was any news. But in the weeks after, things all seemed to be going smoothly and there was nothing major to report. On the 8th of June, my roommate showed me news of the DPRK delegation’s visit to Singapore in preparation for the summit featured in the domestic media. In turn I told him some of what the international media had been reporting on the pre-summit talks.
Finally, on Monday the 11th of June, on a walk through my neighbourhood I checked one of the glass cases that displayed the day’s copy of the Rodong Sinmun, party organ of the Korean Workers’ Party and North Korea’s most prominent newspaper. The headline announced Kim Jong Un’s departure from Pyongyang, arrival in Singapore, and meeting with the city-state’s prime minister with fanfare across two pages. A long line of old men stood nearby to collect their copies of the day’s paper. Some were so eager to read the news that after receiving their copy they simply crouched on the pavement outside the bookstore with the newspaper held cumbersomely in front of their faces.
At a function in the diplomatic compound later that evening foreigners and locals mixed, speculating on what might follow. “Who knows? We could be on the verge of witnessing something historic, but only time will tell”, I overheard an elderly Korean man say in flawless English to some of the foreigners. History may be unfolding before our eyes, but life goes on. I returned home to the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory with my companions, Victor from France and Han Sol from Canada, and together with Han Sol’s Laotian roommate we played Defense of the Ancients 1 (DotA, a highly addictive multiplayer computer game, we can’t get DoTA 2 working for technical reasons unfortunately…) on local area network late into the night.
The next day, on Tuesday, my roommate, a Korean student at Kim Il Sung University showed me the latest edition of the Rodong Sinmun, which he had delivered to his phone on an app via the intranet, which works off his phone’s cellular data. The article at the top, which would be the front page in the paper version, dealt with Kim Jong Un’s visit to some of Singapore’s sights the evening before, including the Skyway. Included were vivid photos of the DPRK’s leader and his entourage touring Singapore. Later that day I saw a man walking down the street with that very newspaper precariously held in front of his face.
I soon heard from friends on WhatsApp that Kim Jong Un had taken a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister. I was naturally quite amazed, but didn’t see any mention of it in the Korean media. Around lunchtime I heard that photos were already coming out in the foreign media, and that the business meeting held earlier in the morning had concluded and that the duo were now enjoying lunch together. The joint statement text had come out and going up the stairs later that evening I saw one of the Chinese students showing the text of it to another one of the Korean students who lived here in the dormitory.
But it wasn’t until the next day that I saw photos for the first time in the Rodong Sinmun (this is again because I avoid images on my phone—which is my only connection to the internet– due to limited cellular data). My roommate usually sets an early alarm that goes off around five or six in the morning. Most of the time he sleeps through it before beginning his morning routine around seven or eight with one of his beloved cigarettes, but on Wednesday he got straight up as soon as the alarm went off and went on his phone to look at the Rodong Sinmun that had just come out online via the domestic intranet. Half asleep, I asked him to show me his phone, and looked at the photos of Kim Jong Un with Donald Trump in front of a row of alternating North Korean and US flags. “Wow”, I exclaimed, not entirely sure whether I was dreaming or not. I went back to sleep for a few more hours while my roommate attended class (I have a day off on Wednesday).
Before lunch, my roommate returned. Curious, I ask him how Koreans are reacting to this momentous news. He told me that they are happy to see the summit held successfully and see it as a victory on the part of their leader. But what about Trump? I asked. They are mocking him, he said. They’re making fun of his apparently stupid-looking appearance in the photos. They’re also saying that his signature looks like rubbish, is unreadable, and looks more like a heart rate monitor than a signature. For Trump they’ve apparently disinterred the insult nukdari (늙다리), which the North Korean media previously rendered into English quite colourfully as “dotard” (indeed the DPRK multi-language dictionary program Samhung brings up “dotard” as the very first translation for the word), although I think “old fart” might be a better translation. Ouch. They were also questioning why the summit was so short, not even an hour?
But surely, I pressed, might the very fact that Trump agreed to such a meeting, where previous presidents wouldn’t, mean that he does at least have some redeemable features? No, apparently. My roommate told me that they are still very cautious of the actions of the United States, and reminded me that they’ve been in over sixty years of unresolved war, and that all the animosity from the past would not simply disappear overnight. He reminded me that for all their lives they’ve known of Americans as the “American wolves” (미제 승냥이), the “sworn enemies of the Korean people” (조선인민의 철천지원쑤—“Let’s wipe the sworn enemies of the Korean people — the US imperialists — from the face of the earth!” is a slogan that I’ve seen displayed in spray paint on the front of North Korean tanks at a military parade) and other epithets.
But, he added on a more optimistic note, people were expecting some easing of the sanctions and embraced some possibility for better relations between the United States and their country. The key however lies in what concrete actions Trump will take next, this is still just the first step in what could be a long process where evidently mistrust runs deep on both sides. I was reminded of some of the North Korean novels and short stories I had been reading as part of my studies (I am pursuing a master’s degree in modern DPRK literature) and the strident anti-Americanism in some of them. Memories of the war remained marked themes, with references to massacres and indiscriminate carpet bombing.
As we’re entering summer insect nets have been set up in the windows of our dormitory and on the doors to the balconies. Trapped inside, a row of flies buzzed anxiously on the window sill. One of the Korean students, a student in the history department, alleges that there were no flies in the Korean peninsula before the Korean War and that the Americans brought them over.
That student is glad that the summit marks a shift in US rhetoric about the DPRK’s nuclear program, i.e. that it no longer calls for instant denuclearisation and instead suggests that it be phased. But he was displeased that no concrete pledges regarding the easing of sanctions featured in the joint statement.
In the afternoon we went to the Koryo Hotel. I had to pick up a book I ordered from the bookstore, and while we were there we wanted to get some copies of today’s Rodong Sinmun featuring the pictures of the two leaders together and the news of the summit. We picked up many copies for friends, and also some of the editions from the previous few days as well as some from the summits between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In, and the one featuring Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang.
We played pool for about an hour at the pool tables beside the bookstore. At 3pm Korea Central Television’s (KCTV) programming began. It previewed the day’s schedule, announcing that news of the summit would be related in just a minute, and again at 5pm and again at 10pm. Three successive newsreaders came on and summarised the news relating to the summit, although no pictures were displayed. Some middle aged Korean men stopped their game of pool and sat down at the bar, watching the TV with rapt attention while drinking beers. They conversed excitedly with the bartender, and I heard the words “Singapore”, “South Korea”, and “sanctions” coming up intermittently. I noticed that Trump was being referred to in the broadcast as the “President of the United States of America” (미합중국 대통령), which sounded quite conciliatory compared what I’d seen in the past, and that when his country’s name appeared in text it wasn’t written in the black, evil-looking stylised text usually reserved for the word “USA”. As the news program ended and on came a documentary titled “Great Ideology and Brilliant Reality”, dealing with the greatness of North Korea’s leader, we took our leave.
I watched KCTV again in my room at 5pm and saw the repeat, after which a program came on introducing the day’s news headlines from some of the country’s newspapers. Photos and news from the summit featured across the front page of Minju Choson (민주조선), the newspaper of the DPRK’s cabinet, in addition to the Rodong Sinmun which I saw earlier. The news that followed included an anti-corruption campaign in Guinea and the usual reports on the activities of overseas supporters of North Korea and its Juche ideology.
We thought that it would be in order to mark these few days, that may well go down in Korean history, in some special way. So we (Victor, Han Sol and I) went to what some consider to be Pyongyang’s best burger joint, Myohyanggwan (묘향관) for dinner. I had been to some of the other fast food-style places in Pyongyang before but it was my first visit to this one, and I found it to be an intriguing mix of McDonald’s and a high end North Korean restaurant. Although we ordered from a paper menu at our tables, the kitchen could be seen behind a counter with those backlit signs featuring pictures of burgers. Cola came from a machine, which was placed side by side with some cacti and a Chinese tea set.
We each ordered a burger, French fries and cola, and Victor got a somewhat KFC-esque sweet and sour sauce chicken wrap (밀쌈) too. The food was brought to our tables by a waitress on a tray just like in a fast food restaurant. The French fries came in a cardboard cup as did the burger, which was wrapped in that glossy paper. The cardboard cup and paper had the restaurant’s logo printed on it, which looked more North Korean than like the golden arches.
The food was pretty close to McDonald’s, if only the they had used pickled instead of raw cucumber in the burger and the French fries had a little more salt on them. I leafed through the menu and saw that they also had sundaes in a range of flavours from kiwi to mango and strawberry, fried chicken, bubble tea, pizzas, Korean food, sushi, and more. The burgers were listed in Korean as “grounded beef layered in bread” (다진 소고기 겹빵), rather than as “hamburger” based on the English pronunciation, although I had seen one of the other places in Pyongyang refer to them in that way. The meal cost us about $6 USD a head, and we paid in US dollars, receiving change in a mix of USD and local Korean won. The perfect meal to mark the occasion, I thought contently. Although who knows, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before McDonald’s sets up a restaurant next door.