Faces of Pyongyang, part 2: Behind the scenes

In my previous post I presented a somewhat idyllic version of Pyongyang, which doesn’t match the common perception of a concrete monster where no one smiles. Indeed, the DPRK’s capital has surprisingly attractive sides, and has been steadily renovated over the last couple years, in preparation for the 100th anniversary celebrations.

Yet, the showcase city has its dark sides, many of which may not be immediately visible to the visitor’s untrained eye as they are shuttled from one location to the other. During my April 2012 trip, the situation was a bit hectic in Pyongyang due the record number of visitors and preparations for gatherings and parades. Our plans were disrupted several times. Once, as major arterials were closed, our guide had the driver park the bus while he made frantic phone calls to assess how to reach our next destination. Curious, and perhaps naïve, I asked if maybe we couldn’t just take a detour—it sounded difficult to believe that there was no way to bypass the city center or use side streets. Somehow, it wasn’t an option.

Apartment building

The situation became clearer when, on another day, our driver got somewhat lost and went in circles for a while before turning into narrower streets. Our guide looked tense. When, at the end of the trip, we pooled cash for a tip, our guide declared that the driver didn’t deserve much, because he had made “errors”—a somewhat cryptic statement, taken at face value, as our driver got us everywhere safely and without incidents.

As it turns out, Pyongyang literally has a façade and a back side.

The main arterials are spotless, well maintained, and what the architecture lacks in finesse, it makes up in space and perspectives. Yet, some details can be jarring—the residential buildings don’t have front doors, there are no parking garages (and while a tiny minority of residents have access to a car, there are enough cars on the streets to cause an occasional traffic jam), numerous areas are walled off and gated, and some streets are eerily quiet, while on others long lines form at nights next to bus tram and bus stops…

Through our driver’s “errors,” an impromptu walk outside when traffic prevented access to Chilsongmun street when we were due to attend the Symphony in less than 40 minutes, and a few attempts at somewhat daring photography, I was fortunate to get a tiny glimpse into what lies beyond the manicured boulevards.

Side street Residential buildings

Many back streets are partially unpaved, or potholed. Most don’t seem to be through streets, but cul-de-sacs which emerge in between residential buildings, forming hidden plazas or common areas, often equipped with dingy playgrounds and colorful mass-produced concrete artifacts such as benches and flower pots.

The pastel-colored residential buildings reveal their sadder side—rusty, gray, rundown, and moldy. Some building facades are left bare; uncovered and unpainted. While retail shops are located on the public sides of buildings, residential access appears to be always is in the back.

Back streetAt nights, residents park their vehicles in the back areas—it is not uncommon to see vans and taxis. Families gather to socialize and relax while children play. The public face of buildings masks a rather sorry background, and yet there is more life and laughter in the back than in the front. The promised paradise it is not to be found on either side, though—bars and grids typically cover windows on the lower floors of buildings, suggesting that while crime may be officially nonexistent, petty crime or theft may be rampant.

Behind the scenes...

Apartment building entranceInfrastructure is insufficient or unreliable. While major hotels experience virtually no shortage of water or electricity, it is rare to find a working faucet, even at “hard currency” restaurants or stores that cater to foreigners. From a transportation standpoint, the capital offers its residents a virtually free multi-modal transit system, comprised of electric trolley buses, a tram network and two subway lines. Yet, long lines form in the evenings next to bus and tram stops, transit vehicles are often overflowing, and many residents simply choose to walk. The system is under dimensioned and rumored to be unreliable.

Mere miles away from the center, the main electric plant spews black smoke upon the city and its residents, probably negating the benefits of living in a place that isn’t plagued by automobile emissions.

Coal power plant

And from the top of one of Pyongyang’s towers—the city has multiple revolving restaurants, as well as observation decks at the TV tower and the Juche tower—the visitor discovers entire rundown areas which appear to have been left in the dust by the surrounding developRundown residential district in Pyongyangments, which, as one may expect, we didn’t come close to despite driving for multiple days around the city.

And thus Pyongyang continues to amaze and fascinate.

Every city in the world has its dark sides. I’d venture to say that there is more misery in NYC than in Pyongyang—although, of course, it’s comparing apples to oranges since Pyongyang residents are chosen and poverty is simply pushed off the limits of the capital. But the point is that focusing on crumbling or dirty buildings would be somewhat unfair, as the greatest capitals in the world have their ghettos. What makes Pyongyang particularly interesting is that the layout of the city itself, its core design, emphasizes appearance over convenience, hiding things as mundane as building entrances from public view, and limiting the number of thoroughfares.

There are signs that minds are evolving, though. The “new Pyongyang,” centered on the Pyongyang Mansudae Housing Complex, appears to be built by more traditional western standards. Perhaps a series of subsequent “driver errors” on a future trip will allow me to get a glimpse into what lies beyond the glimmer in this area 🙂

In Pictures: Pyongyang’s darker side. Please keep in mind that these pictures were taken in sub-optimal situations–either from a moving vehicle or under cover, so some may be blurry.

[AFG_gallery id=’10’]

Leave a Reply