Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
From the 1960s to the 1980s, North Korea established connections with many developing world nations in a global struggle to garner UN votes. In an attempt to export the Juche ideology around the world, the DPRK invited a number of African nations to send students to North Korean universities. While the experiences of these African students in North Korea have previously been unknown, a May 2009 interview on One Free Korea briefly exposed the life of a Guinean student by the name of Aliou Niane, who studied at Wonsan Agricultural College from 1982 to 1987. NK NEWS is running a series on Aliou’s experiences inside the DPRK; and exploring the curious case of North Korea’s 1980’s African students.
In Guinea, Aliou Niane lived a decent, middle class life despite living under the hardline communist dictatorship of Ahmed Sekou Toure. In 1982, Toure went to Pyongyang to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. Aliou identified that “Guinea’s late president Sekou Toure modeled his country on Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, Mao’s China, and Nicolae’s Romania.” Aidan Foster-Carter explains that Guinea “was a beacon of the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism” and that “in 1960 Guinea became the first black African country to recognize North Korea: another proudly independent regime.” Many radical African countries “saw North Korea as a model of autonomous industrialization and development” and in the “glory days” of North Korea’s internationalism, the “North Koreans were all over Africa: training armies, building stadiums and statues, aiding agriculture.”
As a token of appreciation for Toure’s visit to Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung offered the Guinean president to send 10 of his best students to study the Juche Idea on collective agricultural methods at Wonsan agricultural college. Guinea’s Ministry of Education published the list of 10 students among whom the 21-year-old Aliou would be one. Aliou explains, “I was one of the first and last 10 students to be sent to North Korea by the Guinean government in the 80s. The communist government in Guinea had a close relationship with North Korea. For one thing, North Koreans built some residential villas for the Guinean government and received the UN vote in return.” These 10 students had no choice but to go to North Korea. Despite knowing very little about North Korea, Aliou was excited to study in a foreign country and thought the DPRK would be a better place to live than Guinea.
“I was one of the first and last 10 students to be sent to North Korea by the Guinean government in the 80s.
Aliou was not the first of his family to study abroad – his uncle studied in Czechoslovakia. Despite his family’s relative affluence and knowledge of the outside world, the only knowledge of North Korea that Aliou could gain before traveling came from magazines provided by North Korea’s embassy in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.
“Before going to North Korea, I knew little about the lives and level of infrastructural development of the country due to the propagandist media that we obtained through the North Korean embassy,” he says.
Predictably, these magazines portrayed North Korea as a “socialist paradise” and incorporated more pictures than actual text. In Guinean curriculum, the histories of China, Japan, Britain, France, and African countries were included but North Korea was just a small, socialist ally in a faraway land and was not included in this curriculum.
On December 13, 1982, the group of 10 Guinean students began their journey from Conakry to Pyongyang. The group had a five-day layover in Moscow in order to catch the next Aeroflot flight to Pyongyang. In the Soviet Union, the group waited in the Guinean Embassy and Aliou remembers having to sleep on the floor of the embassy due to the lack of beds. The group arrived in Pyongyang on December 21. Aliou remembers that it was a cold and cloudy day. The cold weather would become a frequent part of Aliou’s daily life while living in North Korea. Aliou noted that his fondest memory of North Korea “is the cold, dark winter with the snow covered landscape.”
Their French speaking minder, Mr. Lee, greeted them upon arrival. Mr. Lee would become an omnipresent part of their daily lives, as he would stay with the group for the entire five years. The size of the Pyongyang airport surprised Aliou as it was much smaller than previous airports he had been in. The first experience that would forever alter Aliou’s perception of North Korea was the bus that awaited the group outside the Pyongyang airport. The North Korean-made bus was in a dilapidated state and the door had to be propped up by a ribbon.
Despite the poor state of the bus, some of the Guinean students were impressed by North Korea. Those students, who were most impressed with the DPRK, came from the Guinean countryside and came from a lower socioeconomic stratum. However, Aliou explains that the “Toure regime did not distinguish the students based on their background.” For the first week, the group stayed in Pyongyang’s old Taedonggang Hotel, which burned down in 2002. Aliou is uncertain as to why they spent the first week in this hotel but assumes that it was for procedural paperwork and screening by the North Korean officials. At Taedonggang, the group was given a bountiful amount of food but received the same food everyday (ex. bread, soup, chicken, and salad). At the end of the week, the group travelled from Pyongyang to Wonsan via train.
Upon arrival in the Wonsan train station, a relatively new, large Japanese made ‘Hino’ bus awaited the Guineans. “We know Hino buses, we had a few of them in Guinea, we understood that North Korea wanted to please the African students but did not want us to notice the Japanese marvel.” In a feeble attempt to pay tribute to the Juche ideology, the North Koreans replaced the Hino sign with a Pyongyang Bus Factory sign. For five years, this bus would take the group to the only two locales in Wonsan that the group was officially allowed to go to besides the college campus, the beach and the Songdowon hotel.
The African students would occasionally walk the 6-8 kilometers from the college to the city of Wonsan. During these unauthorized trips, the students were never alone. North Korean officials, who had authorization to talk to foreigners, would offer to help guide them back to the college with the pretext that they were lost. Aliou explains that “Big Brother” never quite left the African students. Aliou says, “We were under supervision at all times by a party member and a person responsible of our daily activities and sometimes an administrative clerk of the university. We also see people coming from Pyongyang to observe us. That must be part of the normal process of collecting report cards or to check on our academic performance. The conversation between our ‘spies’ and us was often boring because they spoke of nothing else but Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and the Juche Idea. We were always followed by two or three Koreans of different institutions.”
On this day, the bus took the group to their new home for the next five years, a new resident building designed for foreign students. There was approximately 80-85 foreign students, all male, at the Wonsan agricultural college. Guinean students, both male and female, studying medicine went to a variety of Chinese universities while those studying agriculture went to the DPRK. Approximately 25 of these foreign students students at Wonsan came from Tanzania, 4 from Equatorial Guinea, 2 from Madagascar, 35 from Zambia (15 on a civilian scholarship, 20 on a military scholarship), 3 from the Kingdom of Lesotho, 1 from Mali, 1 from Ethiopia, and 4 from Cambodia (the only non-African foreign students at Wonsan agricultural college).
After class, most African students would play football but Aliou typically played basketball
For the first seven months (January-July 1983), the Guineans intensively studied the Korean language. Aliou has very fond memories of his North Korean language professor and says, “The Korean language teacher was a wonderful person, very dedicated professional, however he was not a linguist and could barely speak French.” After seven months, Aliou had reached a basic conversational level of Korean. During these seven months, Aliou had Korean class from 8am to 1pm. After class, most African students would play football but Aliou typically played basketball or track and field. In these football games, the students would divide teams based upon nationality.
For the first year, the Guineans lived on the second floor with the four Equatorial Guineans and the four Cambodians, who would later be transferred to another university for unknown reasons. The quaint Wonsan agricultural college campus was always clean and had trees and vegetation lining the walkways. The foreign student building was equipped with a restaurant, theater, and rooms for the caretakers. These caretakers became quite important, as they were the only ones allowed to open the door for the students. Despite the comfortable living conditions, the African students became aware within the first year that North Korea was not the socialist paradise that the North Korea government had led them to believe.
Etched into the memory of Aliou are the firing squad public executions that he could hear from his room. These executions took place near the children’s camp in Wonsan about five kilometers away from the college campus. These executions would affect Aliou physically and mentally for days. Aliou says that back home in Guinea, public executions were routine. He says, “Both North Korea and Guinea used to have continuous public executions to enforce and maintain a totalitarian regime.” Aliou had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that he would be spending five years in North Korea.
This is part one of a multi-part series on Aliou’s time as an African student in 1980s North Korea. Soon to come, Part Two, detailing Aliou’s views on North Korean racism and the Juche ideology.