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Northern accent: Urbanism and ephemera in North Korea

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Going beyond military threat, famine and dictatorship discussions, two new books give a more multi-faceted sense of North Korea

Pyongyang is commonly imagined as the ultimate Potemkin city. A supercharged amalgamation of Mao’s Beijing, Stalin’s Moscow and Walt’s Disneyland, arranged around stupefying axes leading to enormous monuments to the Kims, and to the ‘Juche Idea’ (roughly translated as ‘Self-Reliance’, Juche replaced Marxism-Leninism as North Korea’s official ideology at the end of the 1970s), with people starving behind the curtain. Explanations have to be sought for the apparent splendour of this capital in a country which is assumed to be economically dysfunctional. Urban myths are reinforced by the tight regulation of  foreign visits – for instance, it was widely (and wrongly) believed that Pyongyang’s palatial Moscow-style Metro only had two stops, as these were the only stations tourists were allowed to see. Two new books try to go beyond the ultra-totalitarian surface, to give a more multi-faceted sense of what Pyongyang is actually like.

So in (Un)precedented Pyongyang, the South Korean urbanist Dongwoo Yim intends to widen the discussion beyond  ‘military threats, famine and dictator(ship)’. He traces the city’s development from its foundation, through its development under the first two Kims, to the effects of a very limited commercial opening under Kim Jong Un, which has meant more private commerce and ‘more international tourists, business people and entrepreneurs’ coming to the city. The title’s double meaning refers on the one hand to Yim’s attempt to normalise Pyongyang, by comparing it to other cities that have been ‘precedents’, especially in the old Eastern Bloc, and its recent attempts to introduce some form of capitalism into its planned economy. 

Sam 2839

Sam 2839

With the growth of the market economy, the city’s periphery is now populated by housing developments for the emerging middle class. Photograph by Oliver Wainwright  

This entails avoiding the totalitarian imagery for which Pyongyang is (in)famous. The neo-medieval Grand People’s Study House, the Pop-Futurist Mayday Stadium, the perennially unfinished 100-storey Ryugyong Hotel, the permanently illuminated Juche Tower, the angular granite Monument to the Foundation of the Korean Workers Party, the gold Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, the grand axes and panoramas – these are merely illustration, with analysis centring on how the city is planned, and the ideas behind it, ‘a socialist city planning logic that puts much effort in creating symbolic urban spaces’, which emerged out of a 1953 Master Plan intended to rebuild the city after the devastation it suffered in the Korean War.

Environment 112513

Environment 112513

Combining production and consumption by bringing together industrial and residential activities, the micro-district is a basic self-sustainable unit for a socialist city

That attempt to historicise Pyongyang means rooting it in the idea of the ‘socialist city’, with an alleged derivation from Marx and Engels, which is curious in a country where both authors have been effectively banned since the 1980s. Their scattered ideas on cities – a suspicion of uncontrolled urban growth and the divide between city and country, and an opposition to Haussmann-style urban renewal – are very doubtful inspirations for a capital city which, by all accounts, is far more developed and well-functioning than the country around it, and which abounds in Haussmannian boulevards and ronds-points, right down to its Arc de Triomphe. Similarly, Yim’s attempt to ground North Korean practice in early Soviet avant-garde ideas of Disurbanism and the Linear City are unconvincing. Pyongyang isn’t based on Soviet theory, but it is based on Soviet practice – on the one hand, on the Stalinist Haussmannism of the 1935 General Plan for Moscow, and on the other, on the idea of the self-contained residential ‘micro-district’, where housing and greenery and public facilities would be planned as one, developed under Khrushchev in the late 1950s. A more interesting aspect of the Soviet model is what Yim calls ‘green infrastructure’, where instead of a green belt demarcating city and country, as has Seoul (or London), Pyongyang boasts instead a continuous network of verdant public space flowing through the entire city. But the most famous, and most photogenic, aspect is the squares and boulevards. ‘Socialist parties’, he writes, ‘realised that humongous open spaces were needed for large parades or demonstrations as they established their governments in the wake of social revolution.’ These squares become the places where the regime would continually re-enact the mass action that brought the Party to power – something that North Korea has developed into the elaborate, dazzling ‘mass games’ it held regularly until 2013.

Micro district street view

Micro district street view

In this proposal for a new micro-district, manufacturing industries are replaced by office spaces and services

‘North Korea can do 21st-century modernity if it wants to; commercial units are starting to supplant kindergartens and other “socialist” amenities’

Avoiding as it does the big axes and terrifying monuments, (Un)precedented Pyongyang is full of graphic information, outlining the city’s employment patterns, its extremely low density, and the morphology of its micro-districts. Seen in this way – in comparison with Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore – the real differences between the ‘socialist’ city and capitalist East Asian parallels are more apparent, with Pyongyang appearing as green, spacious, relatively small, and poorly provisioned with commercial spaces. Much can be learned from this sort of quantitative data – but qualitative information is extremely hard to find, and conspicuous by its absence in this book. The city’s planning reinforces this. Yim quotes an account by the scholar Chris Springer, who notes the city’s ‘puzzling grandeur’, but finds that ‘the untidy business of everyday life, from picking up groceries to taking out the garbage, is hidden from sight (no simple feat in a city of two million)’. 

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Completed in 1995, the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush of Pyongyang’s Monument to the Foundation of the Workers’ Party represents the workers, farmers and intellectuals. Photograph by Oliver Wainwright

What does the future hold? There has been a dramatic increase in the use of taxis and private cars in recent years, and of private housing, in a city where since the 1950s nearly all housing has been public. Between 2011 and 2013, half of all recently bought housing was sold on the open market; luxury flats can sell for a truly unprecedented $200,000. New micro-districts such as the various ‘Scientists’ Streets’ show, aside from more deliberately spectacular architecture (this too, Yim points out, is ‘symbolic space’, showing that North Korea can do 21st-century modernity if it wants to), that commercial units are starting to supplant kindergartens and other ‘socialist’ amenities. There has, as in most post-socialist cities, been some – very select and planned – infilling and densification of green spaces, though it still has a considerable way to go to match Moscow, Warsaw or Beijing. By the end, Yim imagines Pyongyang following those cities into neoliberal development patterns, with giant Costco stores in the industrial areas and luxury developments on the embankments. Maybe that’s preferable to North Korea’s current penury, but it’s an impoverished ambition.

162t prepaid envelope

162t prepaid envelope

Envelope celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Workers’ Party depicting Pyongyang’s Monument to the Foundation of the Workers’ Party

So we now know a bit about the planning and the symbolism of the place, but what of the design of normal life? Nick Bonner’s compendium of ‘graphics from everyday life’ is modelled in part on the big albums of East German design that were a surprise hit in the early 1990s, showcasing, in Bonner’s words about North Korea, a world where advertising and branding is intended to ‘trigger rational rather than emotional responses’, and where designs are ‘generally not expected to explicitly promote one product over its competitor (as there is, in most cases, no competition)’, but ‘labelling is more to inform the buyer simply what the product does or what it is’. The difference is that unlike in East Germany, this is still happening – and also, unlike in East Germany, it hasn’t become an object of nostalgia for people remembering the good old days of stolid statist stability. So what we have here includes sweet wrappers, packaging for tinned catfish and peaches, badges, postcard sets, 3D postcards of Kim Il-Sung’s (alleged) birthplace and women artisans at work, comic books, ticket stubs, beer labels, propaganda posters and landscapes. Much of which is just poor design for a poor country, interesting for its retro and kitsch value and not much else; some of it is rather more interesting. 

Bonner runs Koryo Tours, which organises visits to the DPRK, and first visited in the early 1990s, during the famine that the regime calls the ‘arduous march’, that followed the withdrawal of trade with and subsidy from the Eastern Bloc. At this point, tourists were at a historic low of 100 people a year. Some of this stuff is, however, aimed directly at tourists – the Soviet-style pin badges, for instance, are not worn by Koreans, except for standardised pins of the Kims. Postcard sets include an East German guide to the fabulous Metro, and one of the famous ‘Monumental Edifices’. A 2001 postcard urging ‘Let’s Uphold Our Party’s Military First Leadership’ has Singapore-like high-rises in the background behind the machine guns and striving soldiers, and rather elegant tickets and invites to mass games depict the curved lines of the Mayday Stadium. A lot of the book consists of ephemera from hotels and Koryo Airlines. 

091 cigarettes

091 cigarettes

Rakwon cigarettes packet featuring structures in Pyongyang

Bonner points out to the untrained eye the way that this quotidian design is used to reproduce ideology and monumental space at the everyday level. North Koreans are ‘totally conversant’ with the iconography that appears as logos and backdrops to beer bottles and cans of fruit. ‘They will know that an image of the Kangson steelworks symbolises the great industrial capacity of their country; that the statue of a winged horse with worker and peasant known as the Chollima Statue represents the impressive speed and resolve’ with which the country was rebuilt after the Korean War, and ‘that Mount Paektu represents not only the birthplace of the Korean nation but also of the Revolution and Kim Il Sung himself’. This is seen best in the packet of Rakwon cigarettes, which shows a cityscape of Pyongyang under a low red sun, from the Grand People’s Study House to the TV tower and steelworks in the distance. Here, the ideology in space of Pyongyang is brought down to the level of something you can put in your pocket. But the qualitative problem remains, as it does in Yim’s study of Pyongyang’s planning. What do people think of this place? 

(Un)precedented Pyongyang 

Author: Dongwoo Yim

Publisher: Actar Publishers, New York, Barcelona, £31

ISBN-9781940291352

Made in North Korea

Author: Nicholas Bonner

Publisher: Phaidon, £24.95

ISBN-9780714873503

This piece is featured in the AR’s February 2018 issue on Korea – click here to purchase a copy