This post in the first in a series in which I will attempt to lift the curtain on some antagonistic facets of Pyongyang, and debunk some common myths. Rather than sharing details on a specific experience, I will draw from my overall impressions over my last two trips to the capital.
In the words of John Everard, former UK ambassador to the DPRK, in his memoir Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea: “Pyongyang is not an unattractive city.”
I couldn’t put it better myself. Perhaps because of widespread misconceptions, or perhaps because it’s simply difficult to associate communist townships with elegant architecture and lively neighborhoods, I came expecting a somewhat drab and gloomy city. As it turns out, Pyongyang is neither. It can be elegant, green, dynamic, relaxing, and even festive.
The city of Pyongyang was virtually razed during the Korean War, then rebuilt with Soviet aid. As such, it has two key defining characteristics. First, despite ancient roots, it is a young city. It would be unfair to compare Pyongyang to some of the great capitals of the world which reflect hundreds of years of architecture and history. Second, it is a planned city, intended as a grandiose model of the perfect city.
Pyongyang means “flat land.” The name highlights its remarkable location on a relatively flat, albeit slightly hilly plot of land, in a country that is otherwise 80% mountainous. The combination of the hills and the two rivers which intersect the city, the Taedong and Pothong Rivers, give Pyongyang a rather attractive layout which the city planners have exploited by creating perspectives, viewpoints and vast amounts of green space.
Indeed, Pyongyang features several large and small parks, a promenade on both sides of the river, and many avenues lined with trees—a fact that is highlighted in a North Korean photo book called “Pyongyang, a park city”. Published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House, it describes Pyongyang’s scenery as follows:
Visitors to Pyongyang say they feel as refreshed as they are when in a park. Therefore, Pyongyang is called a park city. The amount of green space per resident is 58 square meters. Moran Hill, a “garden” of the capital where various kinds of flowers are in full bloom and which is covered with green foliage, Mt. Taesong, inhabited by many beneficial birds, including pheasants, as well as roe deer and hare, and Munsu Hill, which is beautifully decorated with armful trees and various kinds of fruit trees… All hills and mountains in the city are covered with green foliage. Rivers, too, add much to the beauty of the landscape of this park city.
While I doubt that the 58 square meter figure is still correct, the overall description isn’t too far off. The greenery gives Pyongyang’s broad avenues and boulevards a pleasant charm which is not found in other typical communist cities.
Unfortunately, foreign tourists are almost systematically bussed from one site to the other, and as such it is relatively difficult to acquire a perspective of the city as a pedestrian. However, as I was scheduled to attend the Symphony on April 15th, 2012, on the day of the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader, our bus first got delayed in traffic, then we were asked to turn around, as the police were preparing to close the streets in preparation for the military parade. While checkpoints and police barricades are a common sight in the DPRK, foreigners are typically waved through, if only perhaps sometimes after what sounds like a heated argument between Korean guides and police officers. This time however, we had to park—and continue on foot. Our guide took a deep breath, remarked that walking was “very illegal” (which is technically incorrect, even though most guides do avoid walks on public streets in order to better control their troops) and notified us that should anyone ask, we were “the British delegation,” never mind the fact that none of us were British. What ensued was a 30 minute delightful walk first on small streets and then on a large section of Chilsongmun Street, all the way to Moranbong Theatre, the Symphony hall, at the top of Moran Hill. The views, the curve of the street, the greenery, the Chollima statue in the distance, and the festive ambiance made for an extremely enjoyable walk in direct opposition with preconceived ideas of Pyongyang.
While most buildings are built in the Socialist Classicism (aka. Stalinist) style and are therefore rather unattractive, they are painted in a variety of pastel colors that break the monotony. Some buildings have odd shapes, which, without being splendid, add a touch of variety.
A number of gems stand out in Pyongyang’s skyline, though: the Grand People’s Study House, or central library, a beautiful building in traditional Korean style built in 1982; the aforementioned Symphony Hall, restored in 2005, a modern facility featuring clean architectural lines on the outside and a beautiful auditorium on the inside; May Day stadium, the world’s largest stadium; the Ice Rink, an elegant and original building. The infamous Ryugyong hotel–the pyramid that dominates Pyongyang–is unlikely to win any architectural contests, but since its façade was completed in 2011, it has shifted from an eyesore to a curiosity.
The streets open on spacious plazas. Kim Il Sung Square, where the DPRK’s infamous military parades are held, tops them all at 807,293 square feet. It is the 30th largest square in the world, although North Koreans like to consider it as the largest in the world. However, there are many other open spaces, where kids gather to play and Koreans of all ages enjoy strolling and roller skating. At times, the government sets up food stalls selling a variety of hold and cold treats, including western favorites such as popcorn and ice cream. While the architecture of Pyongyang’s plazas is not necessarily particularly attractive in itself, the activities that take place make them lively and relaxing.
Similar activities occur in Pyongyang’s many parks, which are spacious, clean, and well maintained. The Moran Hill Park, at the heart of the city, features traditional Korean pavilions as well as remnants of the city’s old ramparts and gates. The Mansudae Fountain Park is dotted with intriguing sculptures. Koreans gather in the parks to picnic and dance.
Foreigners are often invited to join in dances, and exchanging food and treats in parks isn’t unheard of. Dancing with an old lady on Moran Hill was a highlight of my second trip to the DPRK. Some critics say that happy families who gather in parks are “planted” there as “actors” putting on a show for foreigners. I have no reason to believe this. First, the number of actors would be pretty staggering. Second, the reactions of Korean people vary widely when in the contact of foreigners, suggesting that there is probably not a protocol. All are friendly and happy to wave and smile. However, the extent to which more personal contacts is possible varies greatly. In my experience, senior citizens are more likely to dance with foreigners—an activity that is overall “safe,” since communication is extremely limited. When it comes to giving or receiving food, the spectrum of reactions varies from cheerful enthusiasm to fear. Some basic interactions are off limits. We had to beg our guide to buy food from a vendors’ stall on the street. Finally, our guide relented, but asked us to stand at a distance while she purchased the food herself.
Pyongyang evolved dramatically in 2011, the year that lead to the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader. The city was renovated, and an entire area along Changjon Street, on the west side of the River Taedong, was refurbished from the ground up, giving rise to the Mansudae housing project, a 3000-unit apartment complex featuring modern buildings with enhanced amenities that has dramatically altered Pyongyang’s skyline. “The New Pyongyang” preserves the traditional large boulevards and open plazas, somewhat resembling some modern European suburbs. The regime has been heavily promoting this new area, with pictures prominently featured in the media. The area includes modern stores and facilities beyond the housing units. It is featured in the “Nina looking at things” blog, one of the very few resources written by Pyongyang residents (foreigners, obviously.)
Pyongyang is spotless—graffiti is unheard of, there is no trash anywhere on the streets, and many areas are manicured. Residents like to grow flowers on their balcony, a symbol of prosperity with adds a colorful touch to the often grim architecture. The city is compact, walkable, and served by a transit network which includes a two-line subway system, trams, and trolley buses.
At night, Pyongyang wears a surprisingly colorful outfit. The key monuments are lit, but perhaps more surprisingly many structures are outlined with color LEDs. The Mansudae housing project steals the show with a changing display. The colors give the city a surprisingly friendly face that departs from the severe look of the older Stalinist buildings.
Would I move to Pyongyang? Perhaps not yet 🙂 However I do believe that the city has a lot of potential. The cleanliness, organization, and overall layout are appealing. There is, however, another side of the coin—one that, as a foreigner, I was not supposed to be exposed to, but into which I got a glimpse. Stay tuned.
Driving through Pyongyang
In Pictures: a set of views and perspectives.