For those looking to get really off the beaten track of North Korea, there’s no better place to look than Sinuiju. Having only opened to Western tourists in the last few years, approximately 350 Western tourists visited Sinuiju in 2016, so visiting this city provides a truly unique experience not only for tourists, but for the local people – many of which may have never seen foreigners before.
A stroll through the local folklore park will find children curiously following tourists around. Visits to the local Pomhayanggi cosmetics factory and Sinamri Co-operative farm providing a fascinating look into Sinuiju’s economy. Of course, no trip to Sinuiju is complete without a visit to Bonbu Kindergarten – famous for training the children who perform in the skipping scene of the Arirang Mass Games as well as its long history of training artistic performers. The performance here is the best of any kindergarten in the country.
So, with 10 days of tour under our belt, myself and our recent May Day tour group found ourselves checking in to the recently opened Dongrim Hotel as part of our Sinuiju Extension. We freshened up and went down to the opulent, purple dining room to find the entire dining room packed with locals. Our Korean guide Mr. Choe informed us they were local service industry workers who were being rewarded with a couple of nights off at the swankiest new local hotel – along with dinner, drinks, performances and a rag tag group of weird lookin’ foreigners.
We sat down to the usual smorgasbord of grilled pork, pollock, eggs, vegetables, rice and of course, kimchi. After dinner and a few too many Taedonggdang #2 beers, the lights went down and a very charming MC came out to introduce the night’s proceedings. Cracking gags along the way and welcoming both the local Korean workers and international guests, he introduced the first performance of the night – the mandatory performance of “pangupsumnida” (nice to meet you) by the restaurant’s waitresses. Business as usual!
Then, the MC opened the floor. Our Korean dinner guests started jumping up in droves, singing karaoke and dancing like there was no tomorrow. Whether it was the fact that our Korean dinner guests were quite young, had a good fill of soju or were just super happy to be treated to a night out (or all of the above) – they started to cut loose. I mean, really cut loose, or as we commonly say in Australia, “cut sick.” The choreographed mass dancing and traditional “spirit finger” dance moves were out the window. We’re talking free form, expressive dance moves taking place.
People began being plucked from their tables, with huge conga lines worming their way through the dining room. Bunches of flowers would be distributed and given out to people at tables, encouraging them to get up and present them to people as a sign of respect or simply as a not-so-subtle way of saying “Hey! You’re cute! Let’s dance!”
Eventually, our Korean guide Mr. Choe had us all up to perform two songs for our dining guests. First, an encore of the mandatory earworm “pangupsumnida” (which after ten days gets seriously stuck in your head) and a kid’s song (my mama’s popo) which we learned on the bus ride into Sinuiju. This performance particularly was relatively hilarious to our new Korean friends.
After our performances, the floor opened back up to the room with Koreans getting up to do what they do best – slaying at karaoke. I’m a huge karaoke fan, but some of these performances were absolutely next level musical and emotional expression. Being a part of this room felt like a rare privilege to be included in what seemed like the private world of these local Koreans. As tourists, our cameras were (for the most part) turned off, and we all enjoyed the experience for what it was. People drinking, dancing and partying on a Friday night.