This winter I became the first Australian to study in a North Korean university. I have held an academic interest in North Korea for years, but taking classes there gave me a whole new perspective on the country and on the value of direct engagement with the North Korean people.
But getting there wasn't easy. Although we have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the country's formal name), we haven't had an embassy in Pyongyang since 1975. The North Koreans closed their embassy in Canberra in 2008, citing financial issues. In 2013 their request to reopen its doors met rejection by the Australian Government, which was incensed by Pyongyang's most recent missile test.
I was thus unable to rely on any of the official exchange programs used by most foreign students in North Korea. These students, some of whom were taking classes down the corridor from me, are mostly Chinese, but they also include smaller numbers of Bulgarians, Mongolians, Russians, Laotians, Vietnamese and citizens of other countries "friendly" with Pyongyang.
It has been only in the past few years that Westerners have studied in North Korea, such as Alessandro Ford from the UK, and a couple of French students I met during my travels. For the most part, these students attend classes at one of two universities in Pyongyang.
The first is the alma mater of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un -- Kim Il Sung University, a comprehensive university regarded as the country's most prestigious. The second is Kim Hyong Jik University of Education, which is named after Kim Il Sung's father and is well known for its excellent Korean language program for foreign students.
Using connections I had developed through running Tongil Tours, an Australia-based tour service specialising in educational tourism to North Korea, I was able to arrange for myself and two other students -- one from France and one from the US -- to study Korean at Kim Hyong Jik University for three weeks during the Korean summer in July and August.
Mr Ri and I
I was assigned a teacher named Mr Ri. He was an affable 40-something professor in the Korean language and literature department with over 20 years of teaching and research experience. It was he who taught me advanced Korean for two hours a day, five days a week for those three weeks.
Mr Ri had a real knack for combining comic gestures with clear explanation to help me grasp the intricacies of the Korean language. But through him I also learned a lot about North Korean culture, everyday lives and perceptions of the outside world -- including Australia.
We mostly followed the textbook passages and exercises. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these were peppered with references to the Kim family. In one dialogue, a rocket scientist apologises to his mother for failing to give her grandchildren. She responds by reminding the son he should put his work first and not forget the oath he made to Kim Jong Un when the young leader visited his satellite command centre on a customary "on-the-spot guidance" tour.
The majority of textbook content, however, dealt with the more mundane aspects of everyday life: making snowpeople after heavy snowfall, buying flowers for one's mother on her birthday, pop psychology and riddles from Korean folk stories.
Occasionally our discussion went off on tangents, at other times we would joke around. Once, during the flower-themed dialogue, Mr Ri role-played as my girlfriend, encouraging me to explain in my best Korean how the small but fragrant violets I was presenting to him best symbolised my feelings.
There were other times where we described our friends and families to each other. He told me about his wife, including how he first met her through a matchmaker (common practice in both Koreas), how dearly he loves her, and his deep gratitude towards her for working hard to help their family brave the "the Arduous March" (official euphemism for the famine of the 1990s).
In return, I told him about my multicultural family and my friends in Australia and around the world. When opportunities arose, we would joke about the sweaty hot weather and the trials and tribulations of relationships and marriage.
Once, I mispronounced the word for "good", the result sounding more like slang for "penis" (jo-ta versus jot-da). Rather than bursting into laughter, Mr Ri smiled faintly and gently corrected me.
Like any good teacher, Mr Ri invested his heart and mind into my continued progress, energetically delivering his classes and coming up with interesting exercises to keep me occupied. In return, I assiduously completed my homework and listened and practiced my Korean speaking with all the enthusiasm I could muster up. Throughout the process we became good friends.
Perceptions of Australia
But it wasn't until near the end of our three weeks together that I asked Mr Ri a question that had been at the back of my mind the whole time: what did he and his countrypeople think about Australia?
My apprehension around the question stemmed from my previous travels to North Korea as a tour guide, during which I had found out that Australia was widely known as one of the countries that had supported the US "invasion" during the Korean War (known locally as the "Fatherland Liberation War"), an event which to this day remains central to the North Korean nationalist imaginary.
Other than that, I had encountered a few vague stereotypes of Australia: the Sydney Opera House, a vast country surrounded by sea, kangaroos, koalas (some North Koreans even knew of our beloved marsupials, but had no idea they were Australian!).
In general, people knew that Australia was a British colony and that our flag contains the Union Jack, but very few knew anything about indigenous Australians. No one I had talked to knew that Canberra was our capital; the closest anyone had ever got was "oh doesn't it begin with a 'C'?". That same person, a relatively worldly high-school teacher, had even heard of Uluru too.
One day Mr Ri and I were going over a text on Mount Myohyang, a famous mountain a few hours' drive from Pyongyang. It is well known for its fantastically shaped rocks, beautiful rivers and dazzling waterfalls, and has always held an air of mystique about it.
There are numerous myths and legends associated with Mount Myohyang's various features and landmarks such as horizontally growing pine trees that are likened to the fallen and torn winged robes of fairies. As a consequence, it has traditionally been considered sacred in Korean culture.
During discussion, I drew parallels with Uluru, explaining that it too was a sacred place which inspired legends among those living nearby. But Mr Ri apologised, saying that he had never heard of such a place.
But maybe it was unfair of me to have expected him to have known Uluru; how many North Korean mountains has the average Australian heard of? Mount Myohang? Mount Paektu, the majestic extinct volcano which contains a lake in its caldera? Or even Mount Kumgang, the diamond mountains, whose granite peaks are considered the peninsula's most beautiful by people in both North and South Korea?
This compounded my nervousness when it came to asking Mr Ri about how he felt about Australia -- we seemed to come from different worlds, separated by a vast cultural and political chasm.
Yet when I did ask, on what was our last day of class, Mr Ri responded with a smile. He told me that he had admired our performance in the Asian Cup soccer tournament, but admitted that most North Koreans had very little impression of Australia.
But he told me that just as he sees the faces of his Chinese students whenever China comes up, he will from now on think of me, and what I taught him about Australia, whenever he hears the country mentioned.
Separating North Koreans and North Korea
Mention North Korea to the average Australian and they will likely think of bizarre media rumours, nuclear weapons, or human rights. What we tend to ignore are the 25 million people who inhabit the country, roughly the same number as in Australia.
I've had the privilege of meeting many of them, from all levels of society, and many of them -- Mr Ri included -- have been among the loveliest people I have ever met.
We all know that they live in a society with a very different political system and social norms, aspects of which we as liberal Westerners find difficult to accept.
But after befriending Mr Ri and numerous other kind, earnest and fun-loving North Koreans, I found myself beginning to question the logic that our distaste for North Korea's social system should mean that we refuse all engagement with its people who have played no part in shaping the country as it is.
As a result, we are left with a set of stereotypes of North Korean people as limited and abstract as the ones they hold towards us -- brainwashed, robotic, miserable. In our inability to put people before politics we have been unable to grasp that North Koreans too are ultimately ordinary people.
Just like us and people all over the world, they spend most of their time concerned with the facts of human life: work, love, friends, leisure, and family. Studying in Pyongyang and getting to know Mr Ri helped me to better understand North Korea, and helped him learn more about Australia. In the process, we chipped away at the barriers between our respective societies. To my mind, that is the ultimate value of studying in North Korea.
"Friendship between countries begins with friendships between individuals," Mr Ri told me. At the end of the day, that was the most valuable thing that I learnt from my three weeks at university in Pyongyang.