Young Pioneer Tours

Melbourne to Pyongyang: A North Korean Guide’s Story

Hi! My name’s Matt… I’m originally from Melbourne and one of the guides working in the Beijing office.

Like all YPT’ers, I have an inexplicable obsession with all things DPRK, having just finished my degree in International Studies with a focus on DPRK studies past and present. This is the first of my DPRK Chronicles blogs, focusing on highlights and some of my fondest memories of travelling and working in the DPRK.

I was lucky enough to visit the DPRK for the first time in 2014 for two weeks on YPT’s Summer Tour. Sharing Korea’s national love of karaoke (yep, in the North too) and while taking Korean languages classes, I became determined to learn the lyrics to the popular Korean track Pangapsumnida, an excellent Soviet disco-tinged number with a chorus that translates to “pleased to meet you,” being sung over and over again.

So, I arrive in the DPRK on a mission to impress and hopefully connect with my Korean guides by showing off and singing Pangapsumnida on our first night at the karaoke bar in Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Hotel. To my surprise (and initial dismay), there was a young guy from the Netherlands who was similarly obsessed with the DPRK’s unique brand of music. My new mate from the Netherlands’ name is Ramon, and not only has he learned Pangapsumnida, but he’s also learned a good 15+ other songs – all in Korean. What are the chances?! “Damn!” – I think to myself – this guy’s stolen my cool-guy karaoke idea…

So anyway, I have my time to shine at karaoke with our two Korean guides (the lovely Ms. Pang and very charming Mr. Pak), both apparently impressed (i.e. being very polite) after my admittedly butchered performance of Pangapsumnida. Throughout the next two weeks, however, Ramon is the toast of the town – proudly paraded out by Ms. Pang to perform from his back catalog of DPRK hit singles at all the sites we visit. Any initial dismay I had fast disappeared – seeing the surprise in peoples’ faces and watching Ramon connect with all the Koreans we meet on our trip through music was very cool.

As we approached the final days of our two weeks in the DPRK, Ramon and I found ourselves at the Liberation Day celebrations on Moran Hill in Pyongyang. It’s the middle of summer and there are thousands of locals out enjoying the holiday, getting suitably hammered with their friends, picnicking with their families and dancing in the park. We happen across a large group of people watching a performance by two women doing a mixture of comedy and music through a portable amplifier. Before Ramon and I know what’s happening, Ms. Pang is dragging us both up in front of a good few hundred Koreans, hands us the microphone and instructs us to “…sing Pangapsumnida!” Suddenly my apparently clever idea to sing in the safe confines of the Yanggakdo Hotel’s karaoke bar under the cloak of a few too many soju seems all too real. Ah well, when in …Pyongyang, ey?

Ms. Pang introduces us as being from Australia and the Netherlands respectively and Ramon and I belt out Pangapsumnida with everything we’ve got while Ms. Pang, the two performers we’ve embarrassingly gatecrashed the set of, and a few hundred Koreans singing and clapping along. I’ve played in bands for over 10 years, but singing and dancing Pangapsumnida to a mixture of bemused and hysterical Koreans laughing at our bizarre rendition has got to be up there as one of the biggest thrills and surreal performances I’ve ever been a part of. As moments of excitement tend to do, the whole thing turned into  a bit of a blur and after we finish singing I exit ‘stage left,’ absolutely rushing on adrenalin at the whole situation. What just happened…?!

Before I know it, a guy about my age speaks to me in Korean (too quickly for me to understand) and thrusts a piece of paper in my hand. He’s given me a sketch of someone (it’s either him or me?) and before I can work out the message he’s written he disappears back into the crowd. Ms. Pang translates it for me, telling me he’s written: “Long live the eternal friendship of DPRK and Australia.” Absolutely humbled,   I looked around hoping to see the man to thank him properly. My initial, small desire to connect with my two Korean guides via music was blown out of the water. Could this be… my very first act of musical diplomacy? Once again, music saves the day! I took a moment to myself, holding back a small tear of pride before rejoining the group – and showing off arguably the best and most personal souvenir of my trip.

These days, my mysterious Korean mate’s illustration hangs framed and proudly in my living room and is a constant reminder of being open-minded and warm to people from backgrounds vastly different to our/my own and the power of the universal language of music. If you’re ever on a tour with me, I’d love to join you in the Yanggakdo karaoke bar for a duet – just don’t steal my thunder with a Ramon-level repertoire of expertly sung Korean tracks, okay?

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