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Illusion and Design: North Korean Architecture

Lee Jong Seok, President, Aid Architecture  |  2017-04-18 17:32

At the height of bitter conflict during the Korean War in 1951, Kim Il Sung recalled architect Kim Jong Hee, who was on an academic exchange program in Moscow at the time, to return to the ruins of Pyongyang and create a detailed restoration plan for the city. Kim Jong Hee modeled the citys subsequent design on concepts reflected in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels.  
Downtown Pyongyang, despite its expansive plazas and double-wide roads, warrants no comparison with the glitzy, vibrant cities of capitalist nations. Some foreign travellers return from a visit to Pyongyang with lavish praise for the city, but such positive perceptions are largely due to the optical illusion that is Pyongyang. 

In 2015, a Korean-American woman was deported from South Korea after she violated the countrys security law by praising Pyongyang architecture, city design, and even the regime. The woman visited the North in 2014, and was taken by the detailed city planning designed to reflect socialist principles in the citys architecture. Rather than prioritizing design on practicality or usage, the city has been built to reinforce the state ideology (Juche), and the socialist system. 

Pyongyang can be thought of as a giant movie set, with apartments and model houses designed to serve the purpose of storytelling. When the world sees luxury apartment buildings standing tall aside the glistening Taedong River and relaxed citizens walking around the citys parks and plazas, it is easy to forget the countrys abysmal human rights record and abject poverty. 

North Korea is a country that moves according to authority, rather than capital. The regime has used construction projects as a political tool, and without such propaganda value the city would look quite different than the way it does today. Pyongyangs 3 million citizens form the demographic base of the regimes support network. The citys relative growth is an important factor that has enabled the Kim family to maintain a hold on power for three generations. 

Foreign visitors are often entranced by the city of Pyongyang, as the citys facade of leisure reduces feelings of anxiety. The regimes propaganda and architecture is intended to convince visitors of the regimes legitimacy, soften their views on socialism, and even feel critical of capitalism. Knowing well the influence of such aesthetics, the regime chose to invite foreign journalists to view the completion of Ryomyong Street earlier this month. 

Pyongyangs high rise buildings began to draw international attention during the Kim Jong Un era. From Changjon Street to Future Scientist Street, and now Ryomyong Street, high-rise residential buildings have been sprouting up all over the capital. Unlike his predecessors, who focused on symbolic construction projects like the Ryugyong Hotel and Juche Tower, Kim Jong Un has focused significant public investment on high rise residential buildings. 

Up until the end of the Kim Jong Il era, construction was aimed at reinforcing the idea that North Korea was a strong and growing socialist power. Under Kim Jong Un, the North is looking to achieve the status of a nuclear weapons state, and is providing luxury apartments to the scientists, engineers, and elites involved in nuclear development. This policy of supporting scientific development has its ideological roots in the countrys Songun [military-first] policy, which has been aimed at making North Korea a strong and prosperous country since the 1990s. 
The completion of Ryomyong Street was timed to coincide with the April 15th anniversary of Kim Il Sungs birth. This necessitated implementation of North Koreas speed mobilization orders known as Chollima and Mallima. The perplexing rate of speed in which the project was pursued has its costs, as experts believe that it is impossible to guarantee the safety and quality of construction under such conditions. With structural integrity in question, the future of these buildings is uncertain. 
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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