In the second of a special Christmas review of previous NK News features, we take a look back at the Blogger in Pyongyang. Ashun, from Russia, wrote a series of Russian language blogs from Pyongyang in 2010 that detailed life as a foreign resident in North Korea’s capital.
In recent months NK News has featured a number of fascinating glimpses into daily life in North Korea, translated from the Russian language blog Show and Tell Pyongyang. In January the blog detailed how citizens in the capital had been preparing for Christmas and New Year in a post that included a number of must-see photos of daily life in frozen Pyongyang. The site has also touched on some of the capitals’ better known leisure facilities, with posts on its ice-skating rink, bowling alley, and shooting-gallery. Most recently, the blog has seen two interesting posts on the North Korean toy market, featuring pictures of “Juche” lego sets and a number of model cars, trucks and planes (all military, of course). In all of its content, the blog does a fine job in showing to its readers a side of North Korea that few will ever have the opportunity to see – but how?
Although tourists can visit many of the places that Show and Tell has covered in its posts, it would take several costly visits to the DPRK to get the same kind of material. But even then, it is unlikely that a tourist could ever have had the same degree of access and photo opportunities as seen in Show and Tell. What separates this blog from the rest is that it is actually written in and posted from Pyongyang – a city where internet access is extremely hard to come by. So who is writing it?
Perhaps as a result of nostalgia for past times, Show and Tell has developed a huge following in Russia – with some posts featuring over one hundred blog comments and crucially, telling dialogue between its author and readers. Through a study of these comments and the totality of content posted to-date, NK News intern Chistopher Stenning was able to join the dots and paint a fairly comprehensive background of the blog’s author, which we now present, in the form of a selected range of translated posts. NK News did try and get in touch with the blog’s author for an interview, but was unsuccessful in making contact.
Ashen – a foreign language student in Pyongyang
In short, Ashen (perhaps a pseudonym) is a Russian national, studying at the prestigious Kim Il Sung (KIS) University, in Pyongyang. He is part of a small cohort of foreigners at the school who live in seclusion from the North Koreans, but with enough freedom to explore the capital unhindered. With no internet access in either his dormitory or university (Intranet only), this freedom of movement allows him to maintain Show and Tell from the Russian Embassy, where it is suggested by one reader, his parents have been working for some time.
On College Life
When Ashen started blogging in early 2010, student life at KIS University was a major topic of his writing. In one of his first post, he explains to his readers that he is studying in Pyongyang:
“During Soviet times, most foreign students at KIS were Russian, but now they are mainly Chinese. At the moment there are about 50 Chinese, 2 Russians (including me), and several Mongolian and Vietnamese. Education for foreigners, with rare exceptions, costs about $5000 a year. This figure includes tuition, accommodation and meals. In addition to studies, trips are organized around the city to explore the local attractions, and with over five years spent in-country, you see a lot more than the average tourist.”
As can be seen in the picture he uploaded, of his dorms, even the walls of foreign students are adorned with portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il at KIS University. As we know, these portraits are everywhere in the DPRK, with citizens given special equipment by the state to help keep the frame and glass clean. However, portraits are absent in international hotels such as the Koryo and Yanggakdo, where foreigners are normally exempted from the otherwise compulsory Kim-worship. It is interesting then that Ashen has these portraits featuring so prominently in his room. In the book “Comrades and Strangers”, author Michael Harrold – who spent six years in the DPRK revising speeches – said that after an incident in which one foreign worker defaced a Kim il-Sung portrait, all portraits were removed from the bedrooms of foreign staff. Perhaps things have changed since then: it i quite possible their presence could be the result of Ashen’s own choice (he later reveals that he has lived in the DPRK for many years prior to his studies), or, it could be an obligation for students at KIS university – foreigners included.
Later in the same post, explains that the dormitory building he lives in is split in two, with two floors for foreign students and another two for locals. Although there are a number of Koreans with whom he has no contact (them having a separate entrance to the building), he says that there are nevertheless a group of “successful and politically reliable” Koreans that the foreigner community can mix with – primarily to help develop Korean language skills. He adds, “they are normal people with whom you can talk, joke and even drink a bottle or two of beer – but all this only in the dorm, beyond, everything becomes harder”.
With regards to his quality of life at the KIS university dorms, Ashen seems to have mixed feelings. On the positive side, there are three “edible and tasty” meals a day. Breakfast includes a glass of hot milk, rice porridge, boiled eggs and bread. Lunch and dinner can include soup, rice, kimchi, meat, and seafood. As one might expect, on public holidays there are dinner parties with higher quality food and larger portions. Another advantage is that having “over five years of study in the country means you see a lot more than the average tourist…You will see the life of Koreans almost exactly as it is. After all, unlike tourists, students have the right to move freely around the city. You can look around the streets without a guide and see what is hidden from prying eyes. You can even walk on the nearly deserted streets at night with a flashlight.”
On the negative side, hot water supplies are limited to just half an hour a day during the winter (non-existent for the rest of the year), and there are no showers – students have to wash with basins. In addition, electricity supplies are erratic. While 200-250v electricity is supplied throughout most of the spring and summer, this drops to below 100 volts during the cold winter, necessitating the purchase of a voltage regulator (which often isn’t enough). Electricity outages are common during the winter too, with lighting sometimes out all night.
Despite the negatives, Ashen explains that “everything else is not so bad”. His student housing is located close to the university, several restaurants, shops, a subway station and a market. Unlike Tongil market, his local market is not meant for foreigners, but he says some foreigners can sneak in if they “take precautions” – especially Chinese students willing to wear gray clothing that day! Unfortunately, his European appearance and relatively tall frame make it difficult for him to get in unnoticed.
If this post might have got you interested for whatever reason in studying at KIS university like Ashen, be aware that the North Korean Ministry of Education has foreign study abroad programs only with a select group of countries : China, Russia, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar. If you aren’t from one of those countries, your chances of studying in Pyongyang are likely extremely remote!
Tomorrow we present more about Ashen’s university life.