Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
In the final part of our special three-part series featuring Aliou Niane, a Guinean who studied at Wonsan agricultural college in North Korea from 1982-1987, Aliou remembers his role in a march to Pyongyang to protest a lack of clean drinking water.
In the summer of 1984, a group of African students who were receiving improperly treated water at Wonsan Agricultural College decided to protest against their inadequate conditions and march to Pyongyang.
The African students were receiving water that was a “milky, white color,” often boiled and served in kettles. Although they were allowed to purchase beer and cider with Korean Won and Coca-Cola using foreign currency, bottled water remained a rare luxury for the visiting Africans. They were unsure what their fellow North Korean students drunk, because segregation at the university meant they could never share a meal or even eat in the same cafeteria together.
In 1984 Guinea did not have an embassy in Pyongyang, so Aliou Niane and his Guinean friends first contacted the nearest embassy in Beijing to explain their problem. “We told the embassy that we were not going to school unless we got bottled water” Aliou said. “In Guinea, we never complained about the water as it was never an issue.”
Despite complaining to Beijing, inaction forced the Guinean led group to consider alternative action. The group soon decided to go on a hunger strike to underscore their frustration to the North Korean hosts. But when that also failed to gain the attention of authorities, the students decided to try and board a train to Pyongyang in order to talk directly to North Korean officials in the capital city. But that didn’t work either – upon trying to enter the gated train station, military guards prevented the students from boarding the train. A skirmish ensued and all the students were forced to return to their campus.
Unable to take the train, the Guineans soon hatched a plan to march all the way from Wonsan to Pyongyang, a move they thought would surely get the attention of the North Korean authorities. Learning of the planned march, students from Zambia, Tanzania, Mali, and Lesotho decided to join the Guinean contingent. And although some of the foreign students at Aliou’s university chose not to participate, he remembers that in total nearly 50 finally agreed to march.
As they embarked on the nearly 100 mile march to Pyongyang, local North Koreans looked at the protestors with a mixture of confusion and amazement.
“Our minders were worried. We could tell by their faces, their voices; they continued to plead with us to stay and not to take to the streets. Once we started protesting, they disappeared. The whole street was full of African students walking and shouting,” Aliou explained, recalling their impressions at the start of the march.
“Where could we even purchase the materials for a riot in North Korea?”
As the march took shape, Aliou and his friends shouted “Down with Wonsan Agricultural College…Down with Korean Universities!”
Of course, the students knew better than to shout, “Down with Kim Il Sung!”
But the protestors only had their voices – for none of them had banners or signs to highlight their grievances. Aliou remembers, “There were no such materials. Where could we even purchase the materials for a riot in North Korea?”
The students marched nearly 12 miles toward Pyongyang before approaching a tunnel that marked the beginning of the end for the young protestors.
“While marching, we saw four to five military trucks with fully geared military men passing us. We saw they had guns. We students understood that the best place for the military to stop the protest would be before entering the tunnel. But we continued walking.”
“The military’s plan was to stop us from going through the tunnel, but also psychologically to wait until we were tired, thirsty, and hungry before they came for negotiation. This tells you exactly how well they know and use psychological tactics,” Aliou explains.
Before the group entered the tunnel, a high-ranking military officer stepped out of his Mercedes Benz and asked to talk. Aliou’s first impression of this military officer were his “well-polished shoes, many medals, and his immaculately clean look.”
The military officer told the students to sit down on the ground so that they could talk. Aliou said, “Psychologically, the officer controlled everyone by sitting on the dirt off the side of the road with two of his aids standing at his side.”
The military officer, with a broad smile, asked the students to sit down. While some did, others were still angry and continued to stand in protest.
“What do you want?”, the military officer asked. “Bottles of water,” the students responded.
“You are right, water is very important. You will get water if you get into the bus and go back to school”, the officer responded. But having heard it all before, Aliou remembers the students replied, “It is always the same promises that have never been delivered.”
Calmly, the military officer replied, “If you listen to me, you will get water tomorrow.”
The officer’s tactics worked. Instead of entering the tunnel the tired and hungry students got on to a bus to go back to Wonsan. As soon as they got on the bus the students started to argue, with some wanting to continue to Pyongyang and others believing the officer was telling the truth.
For his part, Aliou knew that the North Koreans on the bus were eavesdropping on their conversation.
“The common language among African students was Korean. The North Koreans always knew what we were saying and they also knew who was saying what. They knew who the troublemakers were.”
The following morning, all the African students – and even those who did not protest – finally received their bottled water. Their action was a success – and the students would continue to receive bottled water three times a day, until they left in 1987. They would receive a bottle in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. Water was no longer an issue.
In the fall, a Guinean ambassador, “His excellence Habib Diallo,” met with the students in Pyongyang. He told them, “Water was on the agenda with the North Koreans and they have assured me that you will continue to receive bottled water and that it will never be discussed again.”
Although they got what they wanted, Aliou recalls that not everyone remain unscathed from the protest. Their minder, Mr. Lee from the Ministry of Education, had been demoted. When Aliou saw him later that year, he remembers, “Mr. Lee looked completely different. He lost weight. He used to give orders but he was now the one that was being ordered. He was just happy to be alive.”
For their part the African students knew that they would not be killed for protesting because they were a valuable propaganda asset to the North Koreans and rest of the communist bloc. But things were different for the locals, and following the protest Pyongyang’s message to the North Koreans was clear: “Don’t do what the Africans did.”
Freezing Winters, Food Shortages and Ineffective Acupuncture
Despite their success in obtaining bottled water, the student’s general situation would never improve. Due to a lack of coal, the students continued to endure cold showers during the winter months. And although water never became an issue again, the scarcity of food concerned the foreign students who lost weight and fell sick.
When ill there were alas no antibiotics in the Wonsan hospital to treat the students. “The students were often treated with acupuncture for whatever reason. Only when things became worse could we get some treatment for a day or two.”
Meat became a rare luxury and Aliou “remembers smelling meat walking to school” if a shipment were ever to arrive.
To make things worse, the students soon ran out of socks and pens, leaving them to take the 22-hour train ride to Beijing where Aliou remembers the Guinean embassy would finally provide socks, pens, toothpaste, and toothbrushes.
“The North Korean pens were hard to use during the cold winter months as the ink would not come out. The notebook paper was yellowish and very fragile. So China was the best place to get our six month supply thanks to the Guinean embassy officials and their wives who often gave us what we needed,” Aliou says.
In the 1980s, successive Guinean governments were not much better in treating their own people and the North Koreans knew it. A common phrase used amongst the North Koreans on the Wonsan campus were that “Zambians are rich, Guineans are studious.”
“The Guinean students jokingly interpreted that sentence meaning “the students are studious but poor.” Because when we Guineans enjoyed Beijing, the Zambians often went to Hong Kong.”
Aliou concludes, “I love the North Korean people, I just hate their government as I hated my own government for sending me there to study.”
If you know of or were an African foreign student in North Korea during the Cold War, please contact the author of this article, Benjamin R. Young, at [email protected]