September 23, 2023

Hanging out with Pyongyang’s international students

Young visitors from other countries stood out in 1970s-80s N. Korea, adding to the flavor

I was not the only student from abroad when I was studying in Pyongyang: There were students from across the world, mainly from North Korea’s allies. I have fond memories of student life in the 1980s in Pyongyang — we were a diverse group, with Syrians, Russians, Egyptians, Cubans, Cambodians and lots of Chinese students. We also had a few Palestinians.

Many of the Syrians were very naughty — most of them had North Korean girlfriends and they would always pretend that they didn’t drink alcohol. In their weekend meeting with their ambassadors they would dress up all proper and be all well-behaved, but as soon as they left they’d go out drinking in the bars and nightclubs! We thought they were very different from the North Koreans, a lot more spontaneous and open. We Koreans used to joke that they said whatever was on their mind as soon as they thought it, which is the complete opposite of what North Koreans are like.