What is it like to live in Pyongyang? Two recent events explored “ordinary life” in the city

Architects and urban planners met in Seoul to discuss the North Korean capital—and political tensions on the peninsula

November 16, 2017
Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons
Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansudae (Mansu Hill) in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons

The week before Donald Trump's tour of South Korea, I attended a series of events held across Seoul on architecture and urban planning. The specific focus was Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Rather than an eccentric side-issue to the march to war on the Korean peninsula, the events revealed something unexpected—an attempt to understand and build links with the “enemy,” rather than caricature and demonise them.

The events—a two-day symposium in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and an exhibit of a typical new Pyongyang flat in the Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism—had the backing of Seoul’s radical mayor Park Won-soon. But they reminded me that the “discussion” between the two capitals is very one-sided, with Seoul desperately wanting to speak to Pyongyang, but the north not returning the favour.

The symposium, “Pyongyang Revisited,” was organised by the academics Koen de Ceuster and Valerie Gelezeau, for whom the point was “understanding everyday life” in the city. “We all have an image of Pyongyang, even if we haven't visited,” they pointed out; monuments like the Juche Tower and the gold statues of the Kims, the wide streets and intimidating vistas, the ideal totalitarian city the North Korean government itself likes to publicly project.

According to de Ceuster and Gelezeau, Pyongyang is usually seen by outsiders as just a well-organised stage-set, where North Koreans are considered little more than mute “actors," rather than thinking beings. So their event featured historians, architects, artists, tour operators and North Korean exiles trying to look beyond the stereotype. Similarly, the reconstructed apartment in the Biennale, put together by the architects Calvin Chua and Dongwoo Yim, was about trying to peer behind the facades, to get some sense of what Yim calls “the ‘experience’” of living in the North Korean capital.

For the South Korean historian Yuhwan Koh, you can divide Pyongyang's buildings into three phases, one for each Kim. The Kim Il-sung era entailed the mass production of housing, part of a state-building project which meant that until the 1980s, North Korea was more affluent than the South (it is now estimated to be fifteen times poorer). The rule of his son Kim Jong-il entailed buying popularity and prominence through grand projects, public buildings and boulevards. This is the Pyongyang we “know,” with enormous follies like the never-finished Ryugyong Hotel.

"You can divide Pyongyang's buildings into three phases, one for each Kim"
The reign of Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, has been populist and brightly coloured, with the construction of new districts for scientists and a series of water parks. In an intriguing and darkly humorous presentation, the art historian Carey Park displayed pictures of colourful new statues of the Kims—a replacement of stern Stalinist iconography with something closer to Walt Disney, with new Kim Il-sung statues lacquered and varnished into Madame Tussauds-like vividness. Several academic papers discussed how the city was seeing more investment in science and research (with one rather obvious ballistic result) with much talk of a “knowledge economy,” a strange thing in a state where knowledge is so obsessively controlled. There are more supermarkets, restaurants and Starbucks-esque coffee shops. Nobody really knows where the money to pay for it all is coming from.

There is a tension in all of this between the place as lived, and as seen. One panel paired defectors like the social entrepreneur Michael Kim with Nick Bonner, the British director of Koryo Tours, who have organised visits to the North Korean capital and encouraged western engagement with it since the early 90s. After seeing Bonner's short film Enter Pyongyang, a dizzying timelapse panorama of the Stalinist capital, Kim commented “it looks like a Wonderland. I am from that Wonderland.” He asserted that Pyongyang is a showpiece even within the country, an ordered, white collar city.

The show flat was in Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a sprawling arts complex by the late Zaha Hadid. Inside it, South Korean hipsters peered into the cupboards and cabinets (full of real, imported North Korean dresses, shirts, instant noodles and beer cans) and sat on the very 70s yellow sofa, alternately laughing at and contemplating this microcosm of a place that is both extremely close and extremely distant.

On the walls, as copied from photographs of actual new flats, were framed photographs of Pyongyang's great buildings, but they were missing an essential feature of every North Korean flat—the framed photographs of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Calvin Chua told me that they were worried this would be a step too far in South Korea, where expressions of sympathy for the North still skirt close to the edges of the law, so they opted for a compromise—two small portrait frames enclose silhouettes of the two Kims, with their names written in Korean. As a picture of middle class life—these are flats for scientists—it was modest. The laudable aim of the show flat is to try and make North Korea seem less alien and exotic, to give a sense of its ordinariness, but engagement through architecture has its limits.

A paradox of the two capitals is that Seoul has a very active civic culture—massive street protests brought down the right-wing President Park Guen-Hye this time last year—but has few public spaces in which to express it, in a city rebuilt in the '70s for drivers and businesses. Pyongyang, however, is abundant with open squares and places to congregate and linger, in a context where protest is basically impossible.

No academics or architects from North Korea attended the events in Seoul, though a troupe from the Pyongyang Performing Arts Company sang, danced and gave a speech on reunification. On the Southern side there was a perhaps surprising belief in the plausibility of the two countries growing back together. Many advocated a megacity aligning the two capitals into one conurbation, though at the moment, trains don't even run between the two.

Reunification is surely further away now than it has ever been. In a relaxed, thoughtful talk at the end of the Symposium, Seoul's Mayor recalled his efforts to make links with his counterpart in the North. “I met the Mayor of Pyongyang once, at an event in Mongolia,” he said. “I asked him to travel back with me to Korea overland, but he wouldn't. Maybe he was scared of me.” He remains committed to trying to build “trust” with the North, and with the American president promising “fire and fury” this seems almost utopian. What Seoul's attempt to look at Pyongyang was about, more than anything, was Seoul's hopes to finally move beyond the Cold War. Perhaps one day, Pyongyang—and even more so, Washington—might want to join them.