A Bulgarian’s Journey to North Korea

A big intersection in Pyongyang decorated with DPRK flags on the occasion of the national holiday (September 9th)

By Todor Merdjanov

So, there I was, on board of the Air China flight from Beijing to Pyongyang with no more than 20 other people, eating a plain ham sandwich offered by the flight attendant and filling out the numerous customs documents prohibiting importation of blood, plant-based or animal-based products, bacteria, weapons, and foreign propaganda materials (foreign books, magazines, etc.), among other items on the list. My classmate Margarita and I were already sensing an eerie feeling of isolation as the plane descended over North Korea and finally landed at the Pyongyang airport. This is a recollection of how, in September 2013, I had the rare opportunity to take part in the everyday life of North Korea, not just as a visitor restricted by a tightly organized schedule and countless prohibitions, but as an exchange student from my Korean Studies Department at Sofia University in Bulgaria.


For a period between 2010 and 2015, the North Korean government lowered restrictions for foreigners wanting to experience North Korea as part of a tour package or as a visiting journalist. Visitors could then document and capture in more detail the reality of people’s everyday life in North Korea, but of course still from a distance. I spent one month in North Korea and, unlike most foreigners, I was largely able to roam around freely while participating in a language specialization program at Kim Il-Sung University in Pyongyang. What a month it was – not only my first trip outside Europe, but also a month in complete isolation from the rest of the world (no internet and mobile phone), in a country that was certainly not a top destination for exchange students.


Bulgaria was a socialist country from 1944 to 1989, so it had strong diplomatic relations with DPRK dating back to 1948. After the fall of the communist regime in 1990, the Bulgarian government then established diplomatic relations with the South. To this day, however, we continue to maintain relations with North Korea, making Bulgaria responsible for facilitating diplomatic relations between the DPRK and 10 other countries in the Balkan region. In 2011, the Bulgarian and North Korean governments signed a 3-year cooperation agreement in the fields of science, education and culture. This is how I, armed with limited Korean (and practically zero North Korean) language skills, ended up at Pyongyang airport late August 2013.


A major question I still grapple with is whether my exchange program in North Korea was truly an opportunity for exchange. In other words, is there any room for a two-sided mutual flow of information, ideas and experiences with arguably one of the most isolated nations in the world governed by an opaque and unpredictable regime.


My experience in Pyongyang highlighted three aspects of what constitutes genuine exchange: language, culture, and interpersonal experience. I would like to share with you at least a part of it through a mosaic of events, feelings and reflections that I myself am just coming to fully realize and comprehend now with the physical and temporal distance of four years and from my perch here in Seoul, South Korea.



How I Learned to Refer to Everybody as ‘Comrade’

With a limited arsenal of Korean language knowledge after just one year of studies, my classmate and I embarked on our North Korean adventure with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Our lecture courses at the Kim Il-Sung University in ‘Korean Conversation’ and ‘Reading Comprehension in Korean’, led by two North Korean professors (‘the Artist’ and ‘the Talker’, as we often called them), ended up resembling private lessons more than actual lectures. The classes were set up exclusively for the two of us.

One thing we had to quickly get used to was the feeling of being dressed inappropriately for class since all Korean students wore their compulsory university uniforms on a daily basis. The only exceptions were us and the other foreign (Chinese, Vietnamese, Mongolian) students, so naturally we were the local attraction on the university campus and got frequent stares while walking up to our classroom before 9AM every morning. We also very soon realized that we must be especially careful when communicating in the Korean language while in North Korea – starting with the different names for the Korean countries. The term ‘Korea’, used by westerners, has nothing to do with how Korean people refer to themselves as a nation. Since both Korean countries have still not officially acknowledged each other as independent sovereign states, they use different names for each country. In the South, where people see themselves as descendants of the Han tribes that once inhabited the peninsula, the official name ‘대한민국’ stands for ‘the country of the great Han people’, shortened to ‘한국’ (the Han country) or ‘남한’ (Southern Han), and ‘북한’ (Northern Han) when referring to the South and the North, respectively. However in the North, people see themselves as descendants of the Joseon dynasty, hence the official name ‘조선민주주의인민공화국’ (Democratic People’s Republic of Joseon, note: not Korea), and the shortened ‘조선’ (Joseon) or ‘북조선’ (Northern Joseon), and ‘남조선’ (Southern Joseon).

After the two Koreas separated, the North implemented a strict language policy, which was based on the idea of ‘pure Korean language’, thus prohibiting the use of Chinese characters and reducing as much as possible the use of loan words from other languages. This is why, for example, North Korean ice cream (which is extremely delicious, by the way) is called ‘얼음과자’ (icy snack) instead of the southern ‘아이스크림’ (‘ai-seu keu-rim’, a transliterated version of the English word). Adding to this are various spelling differences: e.g. ‘woman’ from the south ‘여자’ becomes ‘녀자’; similarly, the verb ‘to understand’ is ‘이해하다’  in the South, but ‘리해하다’ in the North. There are also vocabulary and expressional differences: e.g. ‘walk’ ‘san-chaek-ha-da’ 산책하다 in the South, but ‘san-bo-ha-da’ 산보하다 in the North. There are different speech patterns: it is not accepted for North Korean men to use the medium polite form ‘-yo’ [–요] for verb endings [해요체] when speaking, instead they always have to use the official highly polite form ‘-mnida/seumnida’ [-ㅂ니다/습니다], e.g. ‘hello’ goes from ‘Annyeonghaseyo’ to ‘Annyeonghasimnikka’ for North Korean men. One can see how 60 years of separation and distinct language policies have greatly affected the evolution of language and norms of communication.

Naturally, our professors requested that we strictly observe the North Korean standard. If we did otherwise, it would be considered an insult to the language, the culture and the people. Worse, we could be seen as supporters of the Southern regime, and we were not keen to find out what would happen (they were happy enough that we had not visited South Korea before our language program in Pyongyang). The Artist in this respect was much stricter than the Talker. He demanded diligence and discipline at all times and would not hesitate to harshly reprimand us should we violate any North Korean language rule. The Artist earned his title by giving his best when illustrating new vocabulary each lesson on the black board, using nothing more than a piece of chalk. His specialty was illustrating the intricate storylines of Korean folk tales filled with animal characters and mythical figures. His ominous presence, strong didactic approach and peculiar personality turned ‘Reading Comprehension in Korean’ into a class where fear and amusement coexisted in a weird harmony.

The Talker, on the other hand, was a lot more laid-back (as strange as it may sound for a North Korean to be described as such) and lenient with our learning process; he would grace us with a gentle smile every now and then. He was our lecturer in ‘Korean Conversation’ and was always interested in what we had to share from our personal observations in Pyongyang, or from our experiences back home. Instead of patronizing us, he would explain to us everything about life in North Korea so that we could understand. His long digressions from the textbook topics would often lead to a one-hour narrative of, let’s say, the Japanese occupation, or turn into a discussion about friendship and love.

The content of our textbook practice dialogues ranged from topics about greetings, self-introduction and age, to situational conversations that involved uniquely North Korean terms that reflected the communist ideology that still undergirds this society, such as ‘What is your name, comrade?’ (동무의 이름은 무엇입니까?). Naturally, I was ‘Comrade Todor’ (not only in class, but everywhere else in the country for that matter). The topics in provided reading materials varied from nature and the seasons of Korea, to the birth place and life of Kim Il-Sung and his ideological legacy, to the Korean people. I gradually realized that it was not a mere language course, but more of a cultural, political and ideological educational process geared for foreign students. To be fair, learning a foreign language always goes hand in hand with explanation of the cultural background. In the case of North Korea, however, the strong connection between language, culture and ideology was always evident.

We had the chance to talk relatively freely with our professors about topics aside from the study materials. They seemed both keen and obliged to explain to us various aspects of the North Korean way of life, history and the people’s mentality. They told us how they won the Great War for Liberation of the Fatherland (aka the Korean War) over the American imperialists, why the relations with the Japanese invaders are still very tense, and why life in North Korea is well-organized, safe and prosperous owing to its great leaders. Conversely, we would introduce our country and culture, and talk about what we were doing in our free time in Pyeongyang.

Surprisingly, the professors became increasingly interested in different aspects of our foreign backgrounds, asking questions such as whether there are cases of homosexual couples living together in Bulgaria. Of course, we did not feel comfortable enough to openly share our views on politics and economy, or challenge theirs in an effort to explain our different standpoint from the historical and cultural perspective as Westerners. But this was not our purpose either. We simply wanted to listen, observe and understand. We expected the same from them. Owing to the amiable relations between our two countries, we enjoyed a good-natured attitude and the chance for academic and informal communication with our North Korean professors. It seemed to me that they were as much interested in learning about foreign cultures as we were curious to find out how and why society in North Korea functions the way it does.

I strongly believe that the way to mutual understanding and respect for cultural differences in general comes with direct and unbiased communication. This is how I increasingly came to an understanding of the importance of my stay in Pyongyang – it was a chance not only for me to learn and understand the way of life and norms in North Korea, but also a chance to share my background as both a Bulgarian and European in an effort to help them understand the way of life abroad.

Discovering Pyongyang and Seeing Kim Jong-un in Person


September turned out to be quite an eventful month in North Korea, and we were lucky to visit Pyongyang exactly at that time of the year. Aside from our academic schedule from Monday to Saturday (Saturday is a workday in North Korea), we had the chance to take part in some unique extracurricular activities and field trips. One day all of the students in the dormitory were summoned by the supervisor in the hallway and we were told the following: ‘We leave at 5PM. Each of you will receive a ticket. Dress formally and do not take anything with you.’ Without any room for questions, we changed our clothes and got ready for departure. It was September 8th and as it turned out, we were going to attend the Arirang Mass Games (on the occasion of one of the biggest national holidays – National Independence Day, Sep 9th), the biggest gymnastics and artistic performance of its kind in the world. The carefully choreographed mosaic stunts and gymnastic performances, executed by more than 50,000 people, felt grand and surreal to witness. In one of the scenes, the map of the Korean peninsula was colored in red and marked as a single country – a sign that North Koreans still believe in an eventual reunification with their ‘southern brethren’, as they call them, under North Korean government.

On the next day early morning, following the same procedure of instruction and secrecy, we were taken to Kim Il Sung Square to watch the festive ceremony and massive military and public parade, featuring tens of thousands of soldiers and laborers marching in perfect sync – a riveting patriotic ensemble. It culminated with the appearance of the leader Kim Jong-un, just meters away from the lounge where we were seated, giving us a rare opportunity to see him up close in person. I was sitting there under the scorching sun, sweaty and thirsty, the sounds from the orchestra and the chants from the marching stampede resonating in my ears, witnessing the explosion of cheers and excitement from the swarm of Koreans around me. I could not help but wonder how much of this overemotional spectacle was orchestrated and how much of it was sincere. But for North Koreans there is no need to ponder on this – for them it is an honorable opportunity to take part in the grand festivities and express their love for the Leader. I recall thinking that ‘now I understand what it must have been for my parents when they were taking part in similar parades back in communist Bulgaria.’


A couple of weeks later, following the usual drill (do not ask, just do as instructed), we received special permission to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum containing the preserved bodies of the two previous leaders (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il). It is considered great honor to be allowed entry to this place of worship of sorts, and every Korean we saw entering was dressed either in traditional Korean clothing (women), or in their military uniform (men). On the long escalator ride I observed the locals entering the temple, and it seemed as though there was a fierce competition in crying and the degree of expressing grief over the leaders’ demise. Inside, in typical Snow-White fashion, the perfectly preserved bodies of the two former leaders were exhibited in glass coffins and placed in the center of two ceremonial chambers, lavishly decorated with marble columns, shiny floors, extremely high ceilings and golden chandeliers. Local and foreign visitors were entering the chambers slowly and solemnly and, as instructed beforehand, took their moment each (us included) to show respect to the former leaders by bowing down before the coffins on each side. The deeds of the former leaders were further elaborated in the exhibitions at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum. It was another venue we visited where civilians are not granted entry without a special government permission. We were told that Koreans need to earn their right to be granted access (the same applies for the mausoleum), which usually happens with age, contribution to the regime and/or political connections. The captured USS Pueblo, sculptured scenes of dominating Korean soldiers over American imperialists, and the grandeur of marble and gold testified for the conviction that the North Korean army had a tremendous victory and saved the fatherland from foreign invaders. While walking the tour around the museum, I tried to immerse myself and understand the historical events from a North Korean perspective. In the struggle for independence and the battle for ideology, fierce animosity between rivals is par for the course, no doubt. At the same time, however, I am not convinced that the over glorification of debatable historical circumstances and the intense degree of political indoctrination have had a positive impact on North Korean society. Patriotism is a strong feeling of pride and respect for one’s country, but it should not be by definition at odds with objectivity and openness for interpretation. The extremity of historical and political convictions instilled into North Korean people is one of the limits that seriously inhibit the possibility for open communication and exchange between the country’s people and the rest of the world.


Typically, visitors, and those observers from afar, just think of Pyongyang when they think of North Korea. We were lucky enough to see a different city for a gaze into perhaps the more provincial life of North Koreans. Wonsan, one of the larger North Korean cities, is situated on the East Coast. We stayed for three days and visited the University of Agriculture, an international children summer camp (children from friendly countries such as Russia, China, Vietnam and Mongolia are the usual visitors there), and the beach to take a swim and enjoy Korean barbecue with our fellow dorm students. This was also the first time when we could socialize more freely with the other students and the dorm supervisor who was accompanying us. In the evenings, we would gather in one of the rooms with some North Korean, Mongolian and Vietnamese friends, and share drinks and snacks while showing photos of our friends and families back home. Despite being curious and sincerely interested in what we were saying, I could often read on their faces that some things were confusing or completely incomprehensible (for example, throwing parties on the beach in the summer, or having a peaceful divorce between parents after which you are still equally close to both). I realized that we were facing serious conceptual differences in upbringing and cultural backgrounds, and while ours were formed more by our direct surroundings than the official authorities (family and friends > local community > state), with our North Korean co-students the order was reversed (state > local community > family and friends).


Encounters with Korean civilians during our stay allowed us to gain some insight into their culture as well as share some of our culture too. Due to medical assistance and cooperation from Bulgaria during the Korean War and the post-war period, most North Koreans knew of our country and associated it with amity and warm feelings. When we mentioned our home country, they would smile and often mention Bulgarian roses and our yogurt in particular. We were also aware that in the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies there was a Department of Bulgarian Studies, but we did not have the chance to visit the students or professors there (several months later in Bulgaria, however, we met two exchange students and a professor from the department who were doing a specialization program in Sofia). In a few of the shops designated for foreigners around Pyongyang, as well as in the Munsudong Diplomatic Compound, there were some Bulgarian products for sale – candy and alcohol, in particular. In foreigner-designated shops the allowed currencies were USD and Euro, and articles were hugely overpriced. After our second week in Pyongyang, our fellow dorm co-inhabitants helped us exchange North Korean currency where in the proces we virtually became millionaires. Just to give an example, with the equivalent of 1USD in Pyongyang, one could buy a total of 7 ice cream cones.


All of our organized extracurricular activities, self-exploring adventures in Pyongyang and our random encounters with Korean locals made me realize several things about life in North Korea. First, there is a huge gap between social strata. The political elite in Pyongyang has a completely different lifestyle than the average North Korean citizen in smaller towns and cities. Second, North Koreans put great pride in their country’s history, political leadership and ideological foundations (however, they were not allowed to say otherwise either). Third, they are warm and curious towards foreigners, especially if they come from friendly countries such as mine. Once again, I was seeing the unique position of my cultural heritage and historical background in this situation – I was coming from a democratic country but carrying a socialist past.

This is what I believe helped me stay objective and analytical in everything I saw and experienced in North Korea – having ties to both the capitalist and socialist experience, I found it easier to observe and understand but not judge, share and be open without imposing my own values and understandings of life. Conversely, it was namely my background that allowed me to do an exchange program in Pyongyang in the first place, and what made the North Koreans I met there open and interested in what I have to say, thus bringing us one step closer to the idea of exchange.

Making Friends I Might Never See Again


Cultural and linguistic exposure aside, having the status of an exchange student in North Korea is what ultimately defined our experience in contrast to most other foreigners. We were accommodated in the Foreign Student University Dormitory, which we co-inhabited with Chinese students (most of them full-time students from provinces close to North Korea), as well as ten North Korean university students whom we were quite sure were from highly privileged families, since they could live and converse with foreigners. We also met foreign students from Vietnam and Mongolia (they were studying there but actually lived in the respective embassies of their countries). We were the only non-Asian students. Everybody in the dormitory resided in a single room but, unlike South Korean university dorms, what impressed me was that there was no gender separation per floor. We had a curfew of 9 PM every night, at which time we were expected to be back in the dorm – a rule we admittedly broke a couple of times; curfews are something all young people are wont to violate at some point in their life. We usually had food in the cafeteria on the first floor, which offered varied North Korean food each day – simple, clean, tasty and nutritious. Because North Korean agriculture is far from being as mechanically developed and chemically processed as in the West, all the ingredients were fresh and natural. The building right next to the dorm housed, interestingly enough, a ‘sweet meat restaurant’ (dog meat in North Korea is called ‘sweet meat’ – ‘dan go-gi’ ‘단고기’) which we did not bother visiting.

Initially, we felt intimidated and worried about having to communicate with North Korean students, but contrary to our expectations, they were friendly, helpful and curious right from the start. After all, the students in the dorm resided together, ate together (although the Korean students ate in a separate room), washed and bathed together. I say ‘bathe’ since there were no showers and instead a basin filled with cold water which we used buckets to pour over ourselves. The washing was ‘together’ in the sense that the bathroom was a big open space with no private separation.

During daytime students were able to freely walk around the dorm and leave their doors open. Interestingly, I was surprised to hear K-Pop and western music coming from almost all of the Chinese students’ rooms. Apparently, rules were lenient on foreign students and the North Korean students did not seem to mind either. We spent most evenings together, playing games and singing songs while munching on snacks and drinking beer (North Korean beer is one of the best I have tried!) If someone had told me four years ago that I would be sitting in a room with 10 North Korean students in Pyongyang drinking Taedonggang Beer, eating dried fish and singing North Korean folk and revolutionary songs a capella, I would have told them to get lost. But there I was – befriending North Korean students, helping them with their English homework, going to public bathhouse together (my first Korean public bathhouse ‘목욕탕’ experience), talking about relationships, family, divorce and life aspirations. They were friends, but I knew I would never be able to contact or hear from them again once I left the country. Talking about jobs and the future, the students could not hide their bewilderment on the fact that we were free to choose the career path we wanted to follow. When asked about their dreams, many students shared their desire to travel abroad and experience the world. It was often followed by an awkward moment of silence – both knowing it would probably never happen.


Aside from dorm life, one big benefit of being an exchange student was not being accompanied by a guide every time we wanted to go somewhere. Officially, the dormitory supervisor allowed us to roam around the close vicinity of the dorm only. But, little by little, we gradually expanded the scope of our ‘casual walks’ and ended up traversing across the entire city by foot or by public transport. Needless to say, we were not granted access to some areas (mainly residential districts, private estates, military areas, other fenced areas with no clear designation of what they were) and we were very cautious when taking photos, but thankfully we did not have much trouble in exploring central Pyongyang. Well, except for one time we nearly got arrested. My classmate and I were casually walking back from our visit to the Pyongyang Zoo when suddenly one of the patrolling guards on the sidewalk shouted at us to halt. He requested our passports and then retreated in the back alley to the telephone booth. What was worse, we realized that we had not informed the dorm supervisor of our intention to visit the zoo that day. Almost certain that we were in big trouble, the guard came back and asked us where we were headed to. After quickly replying that we were walking straight to the dormitory, he reluctantly let us go with the words: ‘Go as quickly as possible before I decide to pick up the phone again.’ Luckily, we did not get scolded by the dorm supervisor when we finally arrived at the dorm. From random encounters such as this or with people just striking up conversation, to people on the street ready to assist us with directions, to smiling vendors praising us for our language skills, to people nearly crashing their bikes into trees and bushes after seeing our foreign faces, those were the small details which made exploring Pyongyang adventurous, fresh and unique.


What made it even more personal, however, was the fact that the atmosphere and some details of the cityscape reminded us of our home country – the colors and form of Socialist architecture, the small shops with limited variety of products, fashion, propaganda imagery and slogans on every corner – it was as if a time machine had taken us back to Socialist Bulgaria. It was a reality that I have heard stories about, but experienced just remnants of. But seeing it functioning in 2013 on the other end of the world made me juxtapose socialist Bulgaria and the reality in my country today – and wonder if such a transformation was also eventually possible in North Korea.


Beyond the 38th Parallel

Now, four years later, studying and living in South Korea and thinking about the experience in retrospect, it is all bittersweet and very surreal. Traveling to North Korea was my first trip outside Europe, and my classmate and I were completely on our own in this scary but unique adventure. It is hard to believe that only 200 kilometers away from my current life in Seoul, the lives of people from the same ethnic and historical background are so extremely different. These are lives I have seen up close, and yet it is still hard to grasp the difference. One thing that is similarly true for people on both sides of the border is that they can be similarly warm-hearted, good-natured and, above all, curious about the world. I have a strong conviction that this is what we should concentrate on if we hope to achieve a more stable and peaceful future on the Korean peninsula. Reunification or not, the path to mutual understanding should be paved first and foremost with openness from all sides, and the key to this is direct communication and mutual respect.

As a Bulgarian and European, as a citizen of a former socialist country having experienced directly and indirectly both sides of the spectrum, and as a scholar with a vested interest in the Korean peninsula, I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to experience both sides of the border in the way I did. Two years ago, when I arrived in South Korea for the first time and visited the observatory at the DMZ on the 38th parallel, overlooking North Korean territory, somehow, I could not feel the same excitement as other visitors. They were gazing at North Korea, a forbidden country and the number one ideological enemy of the Western world. For me, the hills and fields over the barbed wire fence symbolized a place I had known, people I had befriended. Having had the opportunity to visit the North before the South made me think even more about the stark contrast in life between Koreans in the two peninsular states.

There is a Bulgarian saying which translates roughly into English as ‘Beauty cannot be created by force’. Exchange should not be understood as imposing one’s beliefs or reaffirming one’s values by trying to influence somebody else. True exchange is possible and tends to happen naturally when there is enough exposure and willingness for embracing the different, even in a place such as North Korea. One does not need to agree or accept, only acknowledge and try to understand. Through my experience in North Korea I tried to be as objective and unbiased as possible while immersing myself in the everyday life there. And the fact that I am writing this piece now means that a lot of what I experienced there four years ago has stayed with me over time. In the same way, although we may never get in touch again, I am convinced that the people I met in North Korea still remember the two Bulgarian students they met back in September 2013. This is why the message I want to convey in this memoir is a simple call of understanding and suspension of preconceived notions, especially in the time of recent escalating tension not only between North and South Korea, but between communities worldwide. There are many ways in which mutual respect and interconnectivity can be promoted in peaceful and humanitarian ways, including joint ventures, exchange programs and other small steps of inter-inclusion and acceptance. If more of these are implemented alongside official political and diplomatic channels, I believe that there would be a greater chance of bridging some of the gaps and bringing people closer together above, below and beyond the 38th parallel.

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