January 21, 2021

Where North Koreans really live

Propaganda photos obscure the variety of housing across the country

The glossy pictures of North Korean propaganda magazines leave no doubt about how North Korea’s power elite would like their cities to appear to the eyes of outsiders. Such pictures nearly always depict large, multi-story apartment buildings (the higher the better) standing in rows along impossibly broad streets that are more or less devoid of traffic. This is the picture of Pyongyang that North Korea’s agitprop has peddled for decades, and this was presented as the sole type of dwelling worthy of Juche-style socialism.

However, such “gorgeous”-looking apartments are to be found almost exclusively in the revolutionary capital. Some large provincial cities like Wonsan and Hamhung might also have a few such high-rise buildings, but in medium- (let alone small-) sized cities they are all but unheard of. Even in Pyongyang, only a relatively small part of the population inhabits such houses, which essentially remain places for the rich and successful.