Image: Bronze Statue of Kim Il Sung by John Pavelka on 2010-05-03 03:09:39
The construction of modern patterns found in Pyongyang is, in many ways, the story of Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Before rising to prominence in North Korea following the Japanese surrender in World War II, Kim led a small unit of anti-Japanese guerrillas and cultivated relationships with key Soviet officials in Russia. Kim’s cult of personality mirrored that of Joseph Stalin and was replicated on a grand scale by his son and grandson in the ongoing development of Pyongyang’s space.
Through its initial years, the DPRK maintained a close relationship with Moscow and her client states; the earliest plans for Pyongyang envisioned a Soviet-style capital city. Later, an increasing emphasis on Kim Il Sung and the concept of Juche became evident in Pyongyang’s public spaces, with the tower of Juche, commissioned by Kim Jong Il, rising across the Taedong River from Kim Il Sung Square in 1982. This shift accompanied dramatic political changes in the Communist Bloc as well as North Korean ideology in the three decades between Pyongyang’s reconstruction after the Korean War and Kim Jong Il’s rise to prominence.
American bombing campaigns in the Korean War leveled Pyongyang, which had previously contained a large number of colonial Japanese buildings and others with Chinese architectural characteristics. The destruction of these features was virtually complete, with repeated attacks leaving little but temporary shelters constructed from rubble. Though Kim Il Sung was encouraged to move the DPRK capital elsewhere, he chose to rebuild a Pyongyang free of Chinese, Japanese and “capitalist” influences.
The city was laid out according to the Soviet model employed in the post-war reconstruction of cities such as Stalingrad and Minsk
Kim’s reconstruction plans date to 1951, and work began shortly after the war ended in 1953. The city was laid out according to the Soviet model employed in the post-war reconstruction of cities such as Stalingrad and Minsk by teams of architects and urban planners who had been trained in the Soviet Union. Central Square (later renamed Kim Il Sung Square) on the northern bank of the Taedong River became the ideological heart of Pyongyang immediately following the war; one day after the armistice a parade was held at the site, at the time nothing more than a clearing in the rubble.
In 1954 the square was completed, along with two ministry buildings constructed by Soviet and North Korean soldiers flanking it to the north and south. On the southern ministry building portraits of Marx and Lenin hung until 2012. Central Square was expanded eastward in 1987 to reach the Taedong. The Korean Central History Museum, completed in 1960, occupies the northern flank of the new portion of the square, adjacent the Taedong; the Korean Art Gallery, opened in 1954, is to the south. Rectangular and made of dark stone, with columns surrounding the exteriors, arched windows on the uppermost floors, and flat, unassuming rooftops, the government buildings, art museum and history museum lining Central Square exhibit many classicist design elements, common in ancient Greek architecture as well as buildings constructed in the Soviet Union during the post-World War II period.
Sungri Street is the main north-south axis of Pyongyang, running parallel to the west bank of the Taedong River directly through the original portion of Central Square. It was a significant symbol of the relationship between the occupying Soviet power and fledgling North Korea, reflected in Kim Il Sung’s once-close relationship with Joseph Stalin and Russia. After the Soviet army left Pyongyang in 1948, this main thoroughfare was named Stalin Street. The buildings flanking Stalin Street were destroyed in the raids of 1952; afterward, it was shifted eastward, straightened, widened and paved. Stalin Street retained its name until the mid-1970s, when it was renamed Sungri (“Victory”) Street.
Central Square represented the defining feature of the first phase of Pyongyang’s reconstruction, lasting from 1953-60, and remained true to the original post-war plans for the city center. Many of the projects from the first phase were erected in the space spanning the roughly 4-square-kilometer area between Pyongyang Station to the south, Moran Hill to the north, the Taedong River to the east and the Potong River to the west. This area is dotted with architectural and monumental vestiges of Russian influence, with the Russian Embassy near the Potong and various memorials of DPRK-Soviet friendship and cooperation at the peripheries. Most notable is Liberation Tower at the edge of Moran Hill closest to city center, unveiled in 1946, which included a plaque praising Stalin until 1959. Before 1972 there were no monuments to Kim Il Sung downtown other than portraits on government buildings; in cases where Kim’s and Stalin’s pictures appeared together, Stalin’s would usually be above Kim’s.
Kim Il Sung first signaled North Korea’s architectural shift from the classicist style common in eastern Europe to a national architectural style adopting traditional Korean elements at the National Convention of Architects and Construction Engineers in 1954. In rebuilding North Korea, Kim commented that historical styles should be appreciated fairly and that these national architectural elements should be recreated with modern aesthetic influences. He also called for the incorporation of socialist characteristics into the national architectural style.
Unveiled in 1960, after Kim formally called for a departure from imitation of Soviet design, the Pyongyang Grand Theater is located just south of Central Square on Sungri Street. Featuring heavy-pitched roofs and overhung eaves, the Study House bears similarities to a variety of traditional Korean structures, including buildings within the confines of Gyongbokgung Palace in Seoul, as well as the nearby Blue House. However, it is considered an initial attempt at a national style by architectural scholars, and contains elements of both the Soviet and Korean styles.
The lower levels of the Grand Theater feature recessed entryways behind inorganic columns, adjoined by flat stone walls with narrow rectangular windows. Without the dramatic rooftops and elevated terraces above, the base of the Grand Theater appears similar to the ministry buildings and museums of Central Square. Given that the Grand Theater was completed in the same year as the Korean Central History Museum, it is possible that Kim’s desire for distinct architecture resulted in a hasty combination of styles. Though the Grand People’s Study House, not completed until 1982, featured a smoother, more refined style, its western base (facing away from Central Square) also contains the columns and recessed entryway found in the Central History Museum and ministry buildings.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF COMMUNIST POLITICS
Kim Il Sung initially maintained a close relationship with the Soviet Union and Stalin, as well as the Eastern European members of the Communist Bloc. However, Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin policy of “de-Stalinization,” including its denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality, bred consternation in both Kim and Chinese leader Mao Zedong. In 1962, the year the USSR and PRC broke relations, Kim began to pivot to China, but Soviet-DPRK relations improved in 1966 with the onset of China’s Cultural Revolution, which Kim’s harshly condemned.
North Korea’s changing relationship with neighboring China is symbolized by ambiguity in Pyongyang’s memorialization of Chinese cooperation. Shortly after the United Nations coalition, led by the United States, entered the Korean War in 1950, Kim Il Sung’s forces found themselves pushed back to the Chinese border, saved only by Chinese assistance. As a result, Sino-Korean friendship was commemorated in Pyongyang in a variety of ways. However, limited recognition of the history of the Sino-Korean relationship both in North Korean memorials and official policy reflects Kim’s ambivalence toward China and veiled testimonies to his trust in the Soviet Union.
Whereas Pyongyang’s main monument to Soviet assistance in the Pacific War, the Liberation Tower, is located near the city center, the “Friendship Tower” erected in celebration of Sino-DPRK ties is tucked behind the opposite side of Moran Hill, several kilometers northwest of Kim Il Sung Square. When it was unveiled in 1959, it was considerably shorter than the Liberation Tower, though it was raised in height to equal the Liberation Tower in 1984 (scholars suggest this action did not symbolize a political pivot toward China but rather a desire to remain equidistant from both China and the USSR). In addition, the name “Friendship Tower” does not mention China or its significance to North Korea. Nearby, in 1954, a public square flanked by buildings constructed by Chinese troops was named after Mao Zedong in an apparent expression of gratitude.
CHOLLIMA AND THE COMING OF JUCHE
But gradually, Kim Il Sung began to prioritize the importance of North Korean independence and self-reliance, and this became reflected in the city’s landscape. The concept of Juche, which elevated these concepts, has long been North Korea’s defining ideology, first conceived by Kim Il Sung, but with deep cultural roots regarding foreign occupation and the struggle for national identity.
Kim Il Sung first used the term Juche publicly in late 1955, in reaction to the prevalence of Soviet icons (such as photos of Russian leaders and depictions of Russian landscapes) in North Korea, in a speech emphasizing the need for national pride and remembrance of the anti-colonial struggle which defined the Korean people. Kim Il Sung came to embody these characteristics in the gradual development of Pyongyang’s public spaces, which idolized his “decisive” contributions to the anti-Japanese struggle while obscuring other elements of North Korea’s history, de-emphasizing foreign contributions to the North Korean state (or simply removing their traces altogether).
Though Kim did not mention Juche again publicly until the 1960s, self-reliance increased in importance to the Kim regime after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s leadership
Though Kim did not mention Juche again publicly until the 1960s, self-reliance increased in importance to the Kim regime after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s leadership. Realizing that he could not rely on the Soviet Union for aid, Kim launched the Chollima Movement in 1958. Named for the mythical winged horse originating in Chinese classics, the Chollima Movement resembled China’s Great Leap Forward. The objective of the effort was to reduce DPRK dependency on foreign aid by aggressively reconstructing the state’s heavy industrial base (the Chollima Movement did not succeed in this objective, though it is still cited favorably in North Korean propaganda materials).
In 1961, a 46-meter-tall Chollima statue was unveiled near the base of Moran Hill in memorial of the movement’s “success.” The first line of Pyongyang’s subway, opened in 1973, is also named for Chollima. Construction on the Chollima Line began in 1965, and like the Chollima movement, included tragedy as an estimated 100 workers were killed in 1971 when attempting to tunnel beneath the Taedong River to the east of Ponghwa Station, initially the southern terminus of the line.
But regardless of these inauspicious introductions, over the two decades following Chollima and the Sino-Soviet Split Kim’s ideas, his presence and his name would only grow more predominant in the nation’s capital, as the second part of this series will demonstrate.
The construction of modern patterns found in Pyongyang is, in many ways, the story of Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Before rising to prominence in North Korea following the Japanese surrender in World War II, Kim led a small unit of anti-Japanese guerrillas and cultivated relationships with key Soviet officials in Russia. Kim's cult of personality mirrored that of Joseph Stalin and was replicated on a grand scale by his son and grandson in the ongoing development of Pyongyang's space.
Through its initial years, the DPRK maintained a close relationship with Moscow and her client states; the earliest plans for Pyongyang envisioned a Soviet-style capital city. Later, an increasing emphasis on Kim Il Sung and the concept of Juche became evident in Pyongyang's public spaces, with the tower of Juche, commissioned by Kim Jong Il, rising across the Taedong River from Kim Il Sung Square in 1982. This shift accompanied dramatic political changes in the Communist Bloc as well as North Korean ideology in the three decades between Pyongyang's reconstruction after the Korean War and Kim Jong Il's rise to prominence.
John Petrushka is a contributor based in Washington, D.C., and the creator of the NK Pro View from Jingshan column. He studied Asia and International Affairs at Georgetown University and George Washington University. His other research topics include transitional justice in North Korea.