By Alek Sigley, postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University
It’s been over a week since the historic Singapore summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States of America. As a short follow-up to the last post I’d like to share some further thoughts and impressions in relation to the meeting that have come to me since publishing the previous post.
On Thursday last week (the 14th of June) I came back to my room in the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory rather late after visiting a friend in the diplomatic compound. I had ridden my bicycle to East Pyongyang and back and on the way there, it rained heavily. I had a set of rain clothes but used the pants to cover my backpack which I placed in the bicycle’s basket, so I ended up soaked! After visiting my friend and attending to some business I came back at around 6pm. The streets were full of people on the way home from work or school, and crossing the Taedong River over Chongryu Bridge took quite some time because I had to weave through crowds of university students, office workers, and middle school students who had finished practice for the upcoming mass games. I hurried, wanting to get home as soon as possible to have a nice warm shower and change out of my rain soaked clothes.
When I got back and changed I felt instant relief. At that moment my roommate, a local Korean student at Kim Il Sung University in his early 20s who was completing the fifth and last year of his undergraduate degree in English, rushed in, and frantically adjusted the television antennae he had set up in our room. A documentary about the summit which had taken place two days earlier would be shown. The day before (the 13th), first news of the summit had come out in the domestic media, but this had been limited to a text article and a few pictures in the newspapers, and a report in the television news which had consisted of three newsreaders speaking in sequence to the camera. This would be the first time that actual video footage would be shown.
Victor, the French student who lives in the room next door wandered in and the three of us watched the television with keen interest. The scenes of Singapore were striking. Streets lined with people all with their smartphones raised, images of Dolce and Gabanna and other luxury stores that Kim Jong Un’s motorcade passed, the Merlion statue with Singapore’s glistening skyscrapers and impressive skyline in the background, and the tourist attractions which North Korea’s leader visited—it was somewhat surreal seeing this on Korea Central Television (KCTV), which usually featured documentaries about factory inspections and the latest in drill technology. Indeed, the Rodong Sinmun (organ of the Korean Worker’s Party and North Korea’s most prominent newspaper) article from the 12th, which reported on the North Korean leader’s visit to Singapore and featured impressive images of the city’s development, directly referenced Singapore’s “economic potential and development” (경제적잠재려과 발전상), which the leader viewed (싱가포르 사회경지발전실태를 료해하시였다) and vowed to study (귀국의 훌륭한 지식과 경험들을 많이 배우려고).
I was further struck by just how optimistic the language the documentary’s narrator was using. The seventy years of animosity between the United States and North Korea would be “ended” (적대감을 끝장내고), a “full stop” (종지부 찍고) would be put to it, the past would be put behind and a new era in relations would begin. I had been following North Korean media for quite some time but had never seen discourse like this being used in relation to the United States before.
I realised that I should have read the Rodong Sinmun from the day before, the one which reported on the summit, in closer detail. I had been extremely busy the past few days and had only briefly skimmed the article. I reached into the cupboard where I had put the copies of the newspaper I had bought the day before and pulled out the relevant pages. But this movement had interfered with the antennae’s extremely delicate reception and the image froze for about ten seconds. I profusely apologised to my roommate and Victor, who were still watching the television screen closely.
I looked at the article and realised it used the same language, and the exact same terms. The message was clear. Change, and conciliation. We all continued watching the documentary, amazed. It then reached the moment where Trump arrives. Majestic, stately music played in the background, and the first meeting and handshake between the two leaders was dramatic indeed.
We all laughed when Trump awkwardly tried to shake the hand of a North Korean general who instead offered him a salute (after which he quickly switched to a salute). Victor tried to kill a fly that had got into the room which again disturbed the reception for a brief time. The documentary concluded and we were stunned into silence.
The next day I had class. It was literary theory and we were discussing the concept of the dramatic (극적). It’s essentially when something “unexpected” happens in the story, my sprightly seventy-three-year-old teacher explained. Like when the Marshal meets the President of the United States and puts a final end to seventy years of conflict, she offered as an example. I return home and the same documentary is on TV again.
I read the Rodong Sinmun article about the summit again and noticed some interesting parts, such as the clause “although past history has bound our arms and our legs, and false prejudices and habits have obscured our eyes and our ears” (과거의 력사가 우리의 발목을 붙잡고 그릇된 편견과 관행들이 우리의 눈과 귀를 가리우기도 했지만), and more. Trump also showed intention to remove sanctions (제재를 해제할수 있다는 의향을 표명하였다), and stop the US-South Korea joint military exercises which had always created much tension with the North, it said. I glance at the other articles towards the back of the edition which featured the summit at the front. “Research into the Immortal Classic Works of the Peerless Heaven Sent Great Men is Popularised in Several Countries” (희세의 천출위인들의 불후의 고전적로작들을 여러 나라에서 연구보급), a series of murders in Japan which demonstrate the “corrupted nature of Japanese society” (일본사회의 부패상을 보여준다), an anti-corruption campaign in Africa, South Korean workers struggling to keep the minimum wage etc. Seeing these just drove home how unique the summit report was.
Later I talk with my roommate about the documentary. He said it was like watching science fiction. He seemed more optimistic now, believing that we had entered a new phase in relations between North Korea and the United States after seventy difficult years. He said he shed tears when the Marshal (Kim Jong Un) returned to Pyongyang. He is still somewhat wary however, having some knowledge of how Trump often says one thing and does another. Wait and see, he says still, but at least we can now do that with more hope than ever before.