Learning from public space in Pyongyang

A market economy is coming, but space for the public can be set aside, author argues
January 7th, 2014
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The nature, characteristics and limits of urban spaces in North Korea have largely been defined by the Korean War.

The conflict left the country devastated, with the physical destruction of, on average, 85-90 percent of most major cities. The post-war years therefore offered a tabula rasa for the leadership to construct of a new country in physical and social terms. During the Cold War, North Korea created a model distinct from other socialist countries.

After the Cold War, most former communist countries saw their symbolic spaces for parades turn into public spaces for leisure, and propaganda banners were replaced with commercial ones.

These changes, however, are still at an embryonic stage in the DPRK, while other factors (the emergence of private markets and the rise of mobile phone use) are shaping new ways in which city spaces are used and defined.

Architect and author Dongwoo Yim, author of Pyongyang and Pyongyang After, a history and analysis of urban spaces in the North Korean capital, talked with NK News about the past and the future of the North’s capital.  While he believes the North will inevitably adapt a market economy, he said cities around the world could learn from Pyongyang, especially in terms of using a city’s most desirable spaces for public use.


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NK News: Your book addresses the past, present and future of Pyongyang, a city that you define as a “city of green, of production and of symbolism.” Could you elaborate on these three categories?

DY: I would start by referring to the work of James H. Barter: There are many characteristics in a socialist city or socialist urban planning strategy. Among them, some of them overlap with non-socialist cities, such as “land use zoning,” and some of them do not really influence the physical morphology of a city, such as “state control of housing.” However, there still are features that characterize a socialist city and influence the physicality of a city, which are “spatial equality,” “extensive green space,” and “symbolism and the central city.”

In the case of North Korea’s capital, I interpreted these categories as: city of production, city of green and city of symbolism. More specifically, in my book, Pyongyang – which aimed at being the ideal socialist city during the Cold War – is analyzed on the basis of those three categories. These are also the features that were exposed in the 1953 Master Plan for Pyongyang, the one that provided the backbone of what the current city looks like, but as with many other cases of master plans, some were well-realized within the city space and some weren’t. For instance, even though green spaces were planned as buffer zones to limit the expansion of the city in the master plan, they were not well-realized, yet Pyongyang still has plenty of green spaces, a feature rather different from what the master plan predicted.

NK News: With the fall of other socialist/communist regimes, it feels as if today Pyongyang has suddenly been left alone. Does its “socialist soul” still have a valid purpose today?

DY: It seems inevitable for a socialist country to adopt a market-economy system to some degree. In the Cold War period, half of the world was red, so to say. And now there are only few red countries left. Considering this big wave of history, I do not think either Cuba or North Korea can remain a true socialist country. However, as we see in many other features in a society, such as welfare, Medicare or the educational system, even in non-socialist countries, we have been adopting lots of socialist features. I guess the same thing can be said of the structure of a city.

“They conceive of urban space as space owned by the public, not space for real estate development”

Just as we have adopted socialist ideas for our society, we can borrow some socialist urban planning strategies to our cities, because indeed there are many advantages in them as they emerged to solve problems caused by radical urbanization. For instance, Pyongyang puts public or cultural buildings in the most desirable space of the city instead of buildings such as offices, which can be more beneficial in terms of taxation. This is how they conceive of urban space. They conceive of urban space as space owned by the public, not space for real estate development.

NK News: Pyongyang lies at the center of a geographic circle comprising the world’s largest network of demographic, economic and cultural growth. If Pyongyang were to rapidly develop in the next decade, where would it stand in comparison with other East Asian cities and how could it compete?

DY: Pyongyang has a very strategic location. Within a two-hour flight, there are a number of cities with a population of over a million, including big cities with over 10 million inhabitants like Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul. This can be a huge hurdle or a great opportunity, depending on how North Korea deals with it. If Pyongyang is trying to become like Seoul or Tokyo, then, yes, it has to compete against them. Pyongyang now only has 3 million people (within city limits), and it seems that it will not grow to be a 10-million person city, considering the size of the economy and the population of the whole nation.

So another strategy that Pyongyang can take is to target a niche market. It could become a smaller metropolis like Kyoto or Busan, two cities that have strong local characters and yet are still international. I personally call these cities “mini-metropolises.” A mini-metropolis is smaller, has less density and global power than megalopolis, such as London, New York or Tokyo, yet it has gradual growth, fairly good standards of living and strong industries in more condensed and “focused” area.

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NK News: In a post-reunification scenario, what would the role of Pyongyang be vis-à-vis Seoul? Could we have, for instance, a cultural capital in the North and a business capital in the South?

DY: Even though I personally think this is not the right moment to think about any post-reunification scenario, but rather the moment we should think about how or what to “exchange” with North Korea, there are a couple of things I can picture for Pyongyang in terms of post-reunification developments. First of all, we should admit that Pyongyang cannot be a rival city to Seoul. Seoul is already a world-class megalopolis.

“Pyongyang cannot be a rival city to Seoul…but it could focus on certain industries to build its character as a city”

And as we know from other cases around the world, there cannot be a similarly-sized city within a certain distance (quite close in the case of Pyongyang and Seoul). For instance, there is no megalopolis around New York. The closest big cities we can think of are Boston and Washington, D.C, which are both four hours away from New York. The same also happens with Tokyo. If we acknowledge this, then, as you said, it could be a good idea to focus on certain industries to build up the character of the city, which can be translated into future power, for Pyongyang. In Pyongyang, perhaps, the best industry that can be adopted is “education and culture.” Pyongyang already has a certain name for its culture, in that the best elites in North Korea come to Pyongyang for higher education.

On the other hand, South Korea is seeking ways of spreading out its institutions throughout the nation, which now are mostly condensed in Seoul. As South Korea already started to build a new “administrative capital” Sejong City, located two hours South from Seoul, it will be a good balance to have an institutionally-focused city to the North. (Pyongyang is also around 2-2.5 hours from Seoul). This is a very similar structure that the United States has now on the east coast; Boston (institutional city), New York (business capital), Washington, D.C (administrative capital). In terms of cultural capital/or city, perhaps Kaeseong can be a really good one, as it contains both the early 1900s fabric, laid out before the colonial period and the North Korean fabric from the late half of the 20th century.

NK News: North Korean state news is trying to portray the image of a capital city that has nothing to envy from its neighbors. What is your opinion on all the recent developments in terms of buildings, amusement parks, new hotels, etc. taking place in Pyongyang and, to a lesser extent, in other areas of the DPRK?

It is true that there are more developments happening in North Korea these days than any other period in last two decades, and these developments are happening not only in Pyongyang but also in other parts of the country, especially border areas. As far as I know, there are two types of development at the moment; one for locals and another for foreign visitors. In terms of developments for locals, such as apartments, cultural and service facilities, they mostly happen in Pyongyang. Because, Pyongyang is the “face” of the country, and no matter what happens to the other cities, whether they become ghost towns or broken down cities, North Korea will keep Pyongyang as glorious as possible. But at the same time, the authority is controlling what types of development can be allowed to happen.

Most of the, so to speak, “capitalist” developments aimed at foreign visitors happen in other cities: Rason, Shinuiju and Wonsan. As we know from previous cases such (Kaesong), North Korean authorities are very concerned about local people meeting international visitors, and therefore, the Kaesong industrial area was planned on the outskirts of the city, where there is a limit on intermingling between locals and foreigners. The same thing happens in the new ski resort near Wonsan. As part of the tourism strategy, the authorities developed the ski resort near Wonsan but, ironically, it did not have a significant development in Pyongyang. In a way, it is a similar strategy to how they control the spread of foreign media among North Korean people.

Click here to read part two of the interview

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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

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