Infiltrating North Korea Part 4: The architecture of Pyongyang

Pyongyang, for the most part, is surprisingly tasteful and impressive without being too ostentatious and grandiose.

This is because Kim Il Sung, like all megalomaniacs, built his capital to showcase the power and sophistication of his regime and to serve as a shining example of Socialism’s prowess.

Nonetheless, I had still expected a horribly dilapidated city much like the carcass of so many Eastern European towns I had seen shortly after the fall of communism. But I was wrong, for the most part. Yes, such visual horrors certainly existed: Beyond the city center, for example, we could clearly make out the concrete hell of socialism where rows of prefabricated housing blocks were pushed up against each other like tombstones in a graveyard.

But the center of town itself was a pleasant exception to this horrendous architecture. Pyongyang had been leveled during the war and the communist city planners had therefore been presented a tabula rasa on which to build the model socialist city. The result was a proud capital that boasted wide boulevards, tree lined sidewalks, numerous parks, and impressive architecture that could be at home even in Europe. Almost. Pyongyang also has its share of oddball structures and at least one failed skyscraper attempting to be the tallest in the world.

Arch of Triumph
Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph is taken right out of the pages of Paris, France. Except, of course, it’s three meters taller.

The 60 meter tall (190 ft) structure was built in 1982 with 10,500 granite blocks and stands as a tribute to the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945. Or, as recounted in my copy of Pyongyang Review, the arch “reflects our people’s ardent wish and steadfast resolve to glorify forever the immortal revolutionary exploits of the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung who embarked on the road to revolution in his early years and led the 20-year long anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle to victory and returned home by accomplishing the cause of national liberation.”

Such praise is a very typical North Korean manner of exalting Kim Il Sung and inserting his “brilliance” and leadership into every single object–manmade or otherwise–the sun shines upon in North Korea.


Ryugyong Hotel
The Ryugyong Hotel is undoubtedly the most flagrant symbol of North Korea’s failure as judged by the outside world.

At 330 meters (1,083 ft) tall and 105 floors, this mammoth structure dominates Pyongyang’s skyline. Originally scheduled to open in 1989, it would have been the world’s tallest hotel at the time and a cultural coup of one-upmanship for the North Korean government.

Things didn’t go as planned, however. Construction was halted in 1992, leaving Korea-watchers speculating on the many reasons for abandoning such a prestigious project that was heralded in the local press as the architectural equivalent of the second coming of God.

Poor quality concrete is the most commonly suspected reason, although funding probably played a major role as well. Experts estimated the project cost $750 million dollars and tragically consumed far too many resources during a time of horrific famine in North Korea.

Today, the hotel has become a white elephant which no one, including our guides, would speak about. All references have been stripped from the North Korean mass media, including my copy of Pyongyang Review which features all the other architectural landmarks of the city. Stamps bearing its image have been recalled and even state photographs of the city are now taken in a manner that excludes this monstrous carcass. This 1,000 foot pyramid of concrete simply no longer exists.


Pyongyang Metro
The Pyongyang Metro is something else that doesn’t really exist. Or does it?

Every visitor to Pyongyang is given a tour of the metro. But, unlike the Moscow Metro in which tourists could travel at will even during the height of the Cold War, tourists in Pyongyang can only travel between Puhung Station and Yongwang Station–coincidently, the last two stations on the line.

No one seems to know why the other stations are off limits but there is plenty of speculation. Some believe that these are the only two stations in the system and that the commuters we saw riding the train were merely there for show. The more likely reason, however, is that the remainder of the network may be broken, or simply shut down to save energy–although this most certainly doesn’t impact the rumored secret lines that connect government buildings.

The Pyongyang Metro was opened in 1973 and built in the same grandiose style as the Moscow Metro; each station a miniature palace covered in marble, mosaics, statuary, chandeliers, artwork, and, of course, propaganda. According to the 1994 English version of The Pyongyang Metro, North Korea’s subway “is not only the traffic means but also the place for ideological education. Its inside decoration is depicted artistically so as to convey to posterity the glorious revolutionary history and the leadership exploits of the great leader President Kim Il Sung.”

And, indeed, the two stations we visited were impressively decked out with mosaics that ran the entire length of the tunnel, and included themes that, according to The Pyongyang Metro book “represent the appearance of the country which is prospering day by day and the happiness of the working people who enjoy the equitable and worthwhile creative life to their hearts’ content thanks to the popular policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Despite living up to their promise of underground museums, the stations were still a little dark and gloomy–something which even Korean elevator music piped in over the Metro’s loudspeakers failed to alleviate. This is a serious psychological design flaw considering that the stations–some of the deepest in the world–were also designed to double as bomb shelters. I can’t imagine being trapped down there for more than a few hours.


Yesterday: The Enigma of Pyongyang
Tomorrow: The Sexy Traffic Girls of Pyongyang