Expert: Individual catalysts can help Pyongyang develop

Rapid Beijing- or Seoul-style rapid growth not realistic, carries side-effects
January 9th, 2014

When change comes to Pyongyang, the China model is neither desirable nor realistic, an author and expert on urban spaces told NK News.

In the second part of his interview, Dongwoo Yim, author of Pyongyang and Pyongyang After, said that rather than the large-scale urban development the PRC embraced, North Korea should instead pursue a “catalytic project”; a few projects which may stimulate development that the government can proceed with without a master plan.

He suggested that Pyongyang will not develop at the speed of Beijing or Seoul, but that a slower development has its own advantages.

Copyright: DongWoo Yim/PRAUD

Pyongyang Monuments | Click to enlarge

NK News: There is high degree of symbolism in the city, related to the locations and features of many monuments.

As you know, symbolism is one of the keys to understanding North Korean architecture, as well as it society. It is always there to show its glorious victory through over-sized architecture such as buildings, monuments and statues. I wanted to point out their obsession with mega-scale in the comparison infographic. At the same time, I wanted to point out that this obsession does not only happen in North Korea. It’s related to nationalism everywhere you go. In many cultures and countries throughout history, mega-scale architecture is used to symbolize the country’s superiority.

No matter if it is now an outdated fashion or not, we should admit that we also had that obsession at some point of our history. Maybe not anymore, but this is the present for North Korea. Criticizing North Korean culture or society over its obsession with mega-scale architecture does not seem reasonable to me. But in many cases, Western media use the architecture as evidence of how North Korean society is “strange.”

Copyright: DongWoo Yim/PRAUD

Ryugyong Hotel compared to other skyscrapers | Click to enlarge

NK News: Today, public space in Pyongyang is still completely dominated by the state, and the city is perhaps the only Asian capital virtually free of commercial advertising. Could this change in the future?

DY: This is so true: “Urban spaces” can mean totally different things depending on the user’s definition and experience in those spaces. This is not just a matter of urban spaces in former socialist cities; it has happened throughout human history. Having a square (or a plaza) to celebrate the Roman Empire’s victories has turned into a popular open space for regular people in many Western cities. Squares for national propaganda through mass demonstrations now have become tourist spaces with commercial activities. Perhaps those transformations will also happen in the urban spaces of Pyongyang. Currently, they are mostly used as space to practice a sort of “mass game” or national event.

“In the future, major urban spaces of Pyongyang, such as Kim Il Sung Square, will be used as public spaces with commercial activities and events”

However, when personal activity and freedom gets more weight than the national will, the use of those spaces will be different. As we have seen in history, the physical form of urban space matters. It is not something that we do not go to or use just because it had been used to glorify a dictator or cruel king in the past. It is something we use because there is certain function to urban spaces in a specific location with a specific physical form.

Therefore, in the near future, I foresee that major urban spaces of Pyongyang, such as Kim Il Sung Square, will be used as “public” space with a greater variety of urban activities, such as commercial activities and show events. Also, as most Asian countries have historically had fewer squares or plazas compared to Europe, urban squares in Pyongyang will provide a very unique atmosphere for the city when the right time comes.

NK News: If you could make a prediction, what areas of Pyongyang become prosperous in the future due to real estate speculation?

This is hard to say. There are many strategies in development. Perhaps the easiest strategy that we can think of in Pyongyang is through a catalytic project. The last thing that may happen in North Korea, or the thing that should not happen in some sense, is the Chinese model. Considering the scale of the economy and the potential of the North Korean market compared to China, it is hard to picture radical and massive urban development in Pyongyang. And even if it is possible, as we already see many side effects in many Chinese cities, that is not the right way to go.

Copyright: DongWoo Yim/PRAUD

Kim Il Sung Square remodelled | Click to enlarge

“When there will be a stronger need for consumerism in the future, Pyongyang will have shopping malls…The city just needs to decide where that development should happen.”

In terms of catalytic project strategy, it should focus on a few projects that can stimulate development. For instance, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was a catalytic project by the city which attracted many tourists from all over the world, and therefore, the city started to transform gradually. Similar things can happen in Pyongyang. When there will be a stronger need for consumerism in the near future, Pyongyang would have to bring shopping malls into the city, as many of other cities do. The city just needs to decide where that development should happen. Then, once it is developed, it will generate additional development around it without a massive master plan by the authorities.

A new demand will also arise in housing real estate. With the emergence of a new middle class, the city will need to develop new type of housing to meet the demand. However, as North Korea has a very strict plan to control the expansion of its cities, Pyongyang may not need to have massive development like Seoul in the 1990s or Chinese cities in the 2000s. Indeed, the speed of urban transformation of Pyongyang will be slower than Seoul or Beijing, but perhaps that is the way to minimize problems caused by radical urbanization.

NK News: Finally, should Korea be reunified one day, what do you think could happen with land that some in the South may claim in some areas in North Korea?

This is a very complicated problem in South Korea, especially when we think of reunification. And this has to be dealt in South Korea through its law before anything happens with North Korea. In fact, this is based on how you conceive of North Korea. If you say North Korea is an illegal authority that occupies the Northern territory, then South Koreans have a right to claim the ownership of the land, just as we did after the Japanese colonial period. But if we see North Korea as a country, as it is according to the United Nations, it will not be easy to claim ownership, as it already has been imputed to another government. This is a very sensitive and complicated issue but, in general, to have a more constructive conversation with North Korea what we have to consider is not only South Koreans’ desire but also North Koreans’ rights.


A New Pyongyang skyline? | Click to enlarge

All images are taken from Pyongyang and Pyongyang After, used courtesy of Dongwoo Yim

Part one of the interview: Learning from public space in Pyongyang

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About the Author

Gianluca Spezza

Gianluca is the research director of NK News. He focuses his research on North Korean society, the role of education in the DPRK, gender issues in North Korea and North Korean ideology. He holds a Master in Humanities from the University of Torino (Italy) and a M.Soc.Sc. in Asian Studies from the University of Turku, Finland. He worked in East Asia (including South Korea) as an education consultant for five years. Mail: [email protected] Follow: @KazakhPilot

Join the discussion

  • jw

    eewww…no, I would like to see that there is still at least ONE place without all the distractions and noise, and pure bullshizzle you see in a regular capitalist society! North Korea can be stable. Kim Jong Un just needs to buy farming equipment and ways to maintain it while temporarily shutting down its nuclear program (so it can satisfy the KPA by making it temporary, and the UN by shutting it down). Do this, and North Korea will have already solved a major problem. Then perhaps we don’t have to have this safehaven away from the taintings of capitalism. Also, if the DPRK just bought the machinery to produce valuables and export it, then they get some relief on some of their budget problems. But god have mercy, we don’t need more shopping malls and places for people to become slaves to a bunch of spoiled rich brats. We don’t need any more of that. Both Mao and Stalin succeeded at completely modernising their countries and turning them into superpower. North Korea can modernize and become strong and prosperous without capitalism. They can do this without the fears that if you don’t exploit your own labor power to generate wealth for someone else then you cannot have a roof over your head and you cannot eat. Everything is exclusive for the rich, the rich get enough pats on the back at the expense of the poor. I don’t want to drive down the street to be plagued with billboards of women who are forced to starve themselves dangerously to make profit for her imperialist exploiters. No No No No NO!
    Capitalism has ruined the environment, we don’t need the northern half of the peninsula being destroyed either so that the koch brothers can put more in their pockets. It just takes a little bit of aid, smart spending, and to do what the soviets did to protect themselves from the problems facing the western markets back then!