By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This past semester I had class every Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 2:30 in the afternoon. It took me about twenty minutes to walk to my classes in Building No. 3 of Kim Il Sung University from my room in the Foreign Student Dormitory. Here I will go through photos of my thrice a week journey explaining what I saw along the way. I’ll start from after having just left the dormitory, since I plan to introduce the dormitory itself in a separate post later.
At about 2pm each class day, I put my notebooks, textbooks, printouts and stationary into my backpack and exit the dormitory. There’s a small car park area that usually has a taxi or two waiting around for customers and several stalls (매대). On the right there is a “Refreshing Drinks” (청량음료) stall that sells various drinks from bottled water to juice and coffee, and snacks such as injogogi (인조고기; fake meat made from soy protein, usually served wrapped over rice with chilli sauce) and sandwiches. There’s another stall that sells some sort of yoghurt drink called kepiru (케피르) and snacks. This kepiru is likely Kefir or Kephir, a fermented milk drink widely consumed in Russia. In between these two stalls is another selling flowers, cacti, and household ornaments. And down the end there’s one for some kind of sports lottery (체육추첨). People can bet on matches here. There are no cash prizes, but if you’re lucky you can win a computer, a television sets and even a car. On the other side of the carpark are a few more of these stalls. There’s another one specialising in snacks, and one specialising in daily necessities (일용품).
Soon I enter this area between the new green and white apartment blocks down the end of Ryomyong Street. Each apartment block in Ryomyong Street has a different design to the next, but all have a consistent green and white colour scheme. This space is enclosed by tall apartment blocks on all sides, so when you’re walking inside it, you feel like you’re in a different part of the city. I pass a stall selling bingsu (shaved ice dessert), and several shops such as a bookstore, laundry, and computer store. Before ending up at Samhung subway station, I pass the Sohung Store, where we often do our groceries.
I then pass Samhung subway station, a stop on the Pyongyang Metro. This station is the closest to the dormitory, and at only five to ten minutes’ walk away, it makes subway access quite convenient for the foreign students living in the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory. Foreign students are the only foreigners allowed to use the subway without the accompaniment of a guide, which is a nice privilege and a good way to save on transport costs versus taxis. I’ve used the subway a few times now already and it only costs 5 won each time (the exchange rate is about 8000 won for $1 USD), and trains arrive every five minutes or so. Samhung subway station is at peak hour especially a hive of activity, with streams of people going in and out, and people mulling around in the park just by the entrance, sitting on the benches or standing waiting around for friends and family. On the edge of the park is another stall selling snacks. Here you can get hamburgers, sausages, skewered quail eggs (a favourite of mine), and more.
I then end up by the six-lane main thoroughfare of Ryomyong Street. By the side of the road there’s another park area, with plants and benches, and a smaller road. I enter a dark underpass that goes under the six-lane road and end up on the opposite side.
A short walk further down the road brings me to the main gate of Kim Il Sung University. It directly faces the main building of the university (김일성종합대학본관) which was built in the 40s, and the bronze statue of Kim Jong Il at its front. The calligraphy on its gate is the hand writing of Kim Il Sung himself, known as the “script of the sun” (태양체).
Directly opposite the main gate is this slogan, which reads “Plant One’s Feet in One’s Own Ground and Look Out At the World!”, a quote taken from a paragraph written by Kim Jong Il to commemorate the opening of the university’s electronic library in 2009. A facsimile of the handwritten version features as soon as one enters the main entrance of the main building of the university. The quote is quite famous in North Korea and features elsewhere, coming to symbolise the country’s push to develop its IT technology. While public spaces in Pyongyang and the country are littered with propaganda, Kim Il Sung University contains a particularly high concentration. This reflects the special status of the university as the most elite in the country—the proverbial “Highest Palace of Juche Education” (주체교육의 최고전당), and “Training Ground for Korean Cadres” (민족간부 양성가지).
I enter through a little gate on the left, passing a guard wearing a uniform and a puffy cap with a red star on it. I often see him checking the papers of those entering and exiting the campus who aren’t students (easily identifiable by their uniforms).
Just past the gate are some large red slogan boards and propaganda posters. I turn left and walk past stone tablets with quotes from Kim Il Sung on the left, and a long row of propaganda boards on the right. There is one for each department, such as law, foreign languages, history, physics, etc. Since I majored in philosophy for my undergraduate, I took an interest in that of the philosophy faculty. I’ve attached a picture of it here.
At the top there’s a generic slogan, “Let us Achieve New Victories on all the Frontlines of the Construction of a Socialist Powerhouse through a Revolutionary General Offensive!”. There’s a picture of “the people”, represented by workers, the guy on the left who might be an intellectual, all led by a determined-looking soldier at the front. There’s a picture of Mount Paektu, two red flags bearing the slogans “Self-Strengthening”, and “Mallima Speed” (Mallima is the ten times faster version of Chollima, a Pegasus-like winged horse from East Asian mythology). On the far right is what looks like the Hwasong 15 ICBM rocket.
It’s the little text at the bottom that contains notices about what the philosophy faculty has been up to. The pink one on the left is titled “A Powerful Ideological Missile”. It congratulates Juche philosophy lecturer Ro Sung Il on the op-ed he published in May the 7th’s Rodong Sinmun— “The Development of Science Education and the Construction of a Socialist Powerhouse”.
The green one in the middle is titled “Towards a First-Class University!”. This one congratulates teacher of psychology So Kwang Hyok on the sending of a draft of an essay on the “psychological management of children” (어린이들의 심리조종) to an “authoritative international journal” (권위있는 국제학술잡지). The blue one on the right congratulates a few first-year students of the faculty for achieving 5 points (DPRK grades work on a system from 1 to 5 points, 5 points is thus the DPRK equivalent of an A+) in a university mathematics competition.
Then I turn right and enter a forested area. This is a nice patch of greenery situated in the middle of the campus that makes for a relaxing walk. There’s quite a bit of vegetation on campus and I’ve even once so far as seen a pheasant running in one of these areas.
Emerging from the forest I see Building No. 2 (2호교사) on my right. It is the tallest building on campus and can be seen from the other side of Pyongyang. If you go to the top of the Juche Tower (as part of a Tongil Tours tour perhaps), you’ll be able to see it poking through behind Moranbong Park. The top of the building is adorned with the slogan “The Great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il Will Always be With Us”. As is common practice in North Korea the words “Kim Il Sung” and “Kim Jong Il” are made slightly bigger than the rest of the text. This slogan glows with red neon at night, making for one of the most recognisable sights from our dormitory room windows from which it can partially be seen.
By the side of the path leading to Building No. 2 is this stone tablet with the slogan “Study is Also Struggle!” carved on it. You got that right.
In between Building No. 2 and Building No. 3 is another area with some lawn, flowerbeds and saplings. I often see groups of local students out there tending to the plants. For some reason the image of students crouched on the lawn weeding on a warm spring day in their uniforms—well-ironed white button-up long-sleeved shirts, trousers, leather shoes and the puffy cap, with their crimson ties dangling to the ground, remains vivid in my memory. Sections of these areas are allotted to certain classes to take care of. This picture here shows a rose shrub with a plaque at the bottom indicating that it is being tended to by the mechanics department, 1st year class no. 1.
To the left of Building No. 2 is Building No. 3 (3호교사), where I take my classes. The complex was completed just recently (it was built together with Ryomyong Street), and is a huge, grey, hulking structure consisting of three conjoined buildings. The middle building has a courtyard in the middle, where the building itself is circular and fences off the area on all sides. This reminds me of the Coombs Building at my alma mater in Australia, the Australian National University.
I enter Building No. 3 at the entrance to its southernmost section, which is also the tallest, with an observatory at the top. Like Building No. 2, it gets its own slogan. This one reads “The Great Party, Make the World Look Up to Kim Il Sung’s Korea!”. Building No. 3 is so big and so important that the other two sections get their own slogans too. The middle building features the same slogan as the one opposite the main gate, and that of the northernmost section exhorts– “Let Us Become the Reliable Backbone to the Songun Revolution Through Possession of Both Sublime Spirit and Rich Knowledge!”.
Upon entering Building No. 3, I am in a small foyer where straight ahead on the wall there is a not-so-small gold-framed photograph of Kim Jong Un that is roughly three by two metres. It is a famous photo of him from his much-trumpeted visit to the summit of Mount Paektu in 2017. By the side are quotes from Kim Jong Un, hand carved in beautiful gold calligraphy on dark green painted wooden boards, on the importance of Kim Il Sung University. There is also a student (I can tell from the special badge) sitting at a small table in an olive-green uniform with puffy cap. Most times I look over they’re reading a book or doing their homework, if not staring vacantly looking bored.
For some reason this entrance is closed on rainy days. Perhaps they don’t want mud and rainwater messing up the area in front of the photo. On these days we must enter through the side, through a smaller and more nondescript entrance where the student on shift has moved their little desk.
Emerging from the foyer are the elevators, with a couple of propaganda boards. These ones feature tables recording all the visits made by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to the university, and maps tracing the path they took around campus during their visits.
By the elevator two more slogans feature on the wall in gold text—“Following the Great Party Forwards”, and “Let Us Live With the Revolutionary Spirit of Mount Paektu, the Mount Paektu Knife-Like Wind, and Struggle On!”. From here I sometimes take the elevator up to the 7th floor. But most of the time I prefer to walk one of the two sets of stairs on each side. On some days I am obstructed by students mopping the stairs and hallways, which seems to be another one of the duties they undertake to keep the campus looking neat and spotlessly clean.
On the way up I see some of the floors where local Korean students take their classes. The walls of the hallways are lined with propaganda boards, similar in content and design to the ones outside. I’ve seen “The Peerless Great Men of Mount Paektu and the Comprehensive University (Kim Il Sung University)”, a board with short biographies of martyrs who died defending the leader, and another with information on Kim Jong Un’s “on-the-spot-guidance” visits. There’s a few that have lyrics to popular songs written on them; “An Ode to the Fatherland” (조국찬가) and “An Ode to Kim Jong Un” (김정은 찬가). There are quotes from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the importance of education and Kim Il Sung University. And there’s a giant one glorifying the martyr Ri Su Pok (리수복), who selflessly charged into enemy lines with a grenade during the Korean War.
I’ve also seen one dealing with the atrocities committed by the “US and Japanese imperialists”, with an additional section on the purportedly abysmal living conditions in South Korea, which is depicted as a US colony.
I’ve seen some more prosaic ones around too. For example, one with pictures of model students, and another with the profiles of staff and students who’ve participated in international conferences and competitions. There’s one on the “Etiquette University Students Must Observe” and “Duties as a University Student”. This includes loyalty to the party and striving to be a good revolutionary, respecting teachers and refraining from smoking near revolutionary sites. Then there’s this board, titled “The Style of University Students in the Juche Era”, which depicts “Standard Hairstyles” for male and female students, together with an image of students reading from their textbooks as they walk down the stairs conveying the passion for their studies they ought to have, a picture of a student bowing to a teacher, and an image of students walking through the hallways in an orderly fashion.
Then there are others which showcase the research of the relevant faculty. Near where the mechanics department is based I saw one explaining the basics of nanotechnology. Not far from that was this one about Isaac Newton and his contributions to physics.
Finally, I reach the 7th floor of Building No. 3. Looking down from a pseudo-balcony onto the 6th floor I see a couple of table tennis tables where students play and relax. But in contrast to the liveliness below the 7th floor is calm and quiet (it only gets busy in the mornings when the undergraduate students have their classes). It’s here that us foreign students take all our classes, in the specially designated “Foreign Student Lecture Rooms”, as marked by the plaques on the doors. Foreign student classes used to be in Building No. 2, but after Building No. 3 was constructed with Ryomyong Street and the new (and current) dormitory, they were moved over here.
I look down the hallway. Like the other floors, most of the lights are left off, probably due to the need to save power. But the marble interior is neat and pristine. Even more so on our floor where a decision was made not to place any propaganda boards or slogans.
I enter my classroom and wait for my teacher to show up. As I am the only student in my course, my classes are entirely one-on-one. I can’t deny that it gets a little lonely sometimes. I find solace in messaging my friends and family on WhatsApp, or picturing people reading and enjoying my blog. I look out the window at the splendid view and see Building No. 2 in all its overwhelming brutalist glory, the main building with its distinct 1940s Stalinist neoclassical style, the hill where the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung is located, the forested area near the main gate, and Ryomyong Street– my new home. The university staff and students move about like ants down below. I ponder the uniqueness of this campus and my situation within it before my teacher arrives and class begins.