The first post-war plans for Pyongyang included many “socialist” elements common to cities in Eastern Europe, and the city’s earliest building styles were heavily influenced by European architecture. As Kim Il Sung consolidated power amidst a turbulent international environment and his Juche philosophy gained prominence, Pyongyang’s architecture and public spaces underwent many changes, eventually obscuring the city’s roots. Read part one here.
In 1962, Kim initiated a precipitous rhetorical shift toward his Juche ideology in the face of worsening relations with Russia and domestic political instability. However, it was not until 1967, shortly after the onset of the Cultural Revolution in China compelled Kim to turn back to the Soviet Union, that the term was adopted as official state ideology. In 1972, the DPRK’s position in the international system became even more precarious as Sino-U.S. rapprochement began; amid a deepening cult of personality around Kim, his title changed from prime minister to president, and numerous monuments to him appeared in PyongyangThe year 1972 cannot be understated in examination of the history of Kim Il Sung’s influence on the DPRK or public space in Pyongyang. It was then that Kim’s figure raised its eternal gaze over Pyongyang in the form of the Mansudae Grand Monument, located not far from the Chollima monument to the south of Moran Hill. At 20 meters tall, it is one of the largest statues ever constructed in likeness of a national leader; it towers over the people who bow before it, as well as a mosaic of Mount Paektu, once the location of the headquarters of Kim’s guerrilla troupe, at its back.
The inclusion of Mount Paektu reflects both Kim’s personal history as well as the love and pride he espoused for Korean landscapes and geographical features in his initial speech regarding Juche. It was also in 1972 that the national definition of chronology itself changed in North Korea to center on Kim as the year 1912 was renamed Juche 1, with subsequent years following in number.
The inclusion of Mount Paektu reflects both Kim’s personal history as well as the love and pride he espoused for Korean landscapes and geographical features
REFINING THE NATIONAL STYLE
The Grand People’s Study House, which functions as the DPRK’s national library, occupies the space to the west of Kim Il Sung Square. It is of imposing form, towering over the ministry buildings surrounding the square to the north and south, its height enhanced by its place atop Nam Hill, once the site of two churches, described by the DPRK regime as “’the most precious place in central Pyongyang.’” Original plans called for a “socialist-style” government building to be built on Nam Hill, similar in form to the others, to complete Kim Il Sung Square.
The Study House, however, is markedly different in form from the original ministry buildings in Central Square. Completed in 1982 after decades of delay resulting from official disagreements, the Study House instead embodied the features of the Pyongyang Grand Theater, with a bright exterior and accentuated, curved roofs dwarfing the buildings beneath, but also some elements of the ministry buildings in its lower rear columns and entryway, facing away from Kim Il Sung Square. The Study House cemented this architectural style as distinctly North Korean, though it nonetheless contains elements of Soviet and South Korean design (the latter of which was heavily influenced by Chinese architecture in the Confucian period). Architectural scholars consider the Grand People’s Study House as well as the People’s Palace of Culture, completed in 1974 one kilometer to the northwest, as refined examples of the finished national architectural style.
These exemplified Kim’s proclamation of the need for such a style, combining traditional and modern elements, in 1954 and 1960, initially attempted in the Pyongyang Grand Theater. However, there was also an element of competition with the South as efforts to incorporate traditional Korean architectural elements into modern structures resulted in similar building styles in 1970s Pyongyang and Seoul.
JUCHE TOWER AND INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE
(Juche Towere) broke new memorial ground as the first significant monument east of the river
In 1980, Kim Il Sung officially named his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor, establishing a dynastic legacy for himself. Juche continued to increase in importance to the DPRK as it failed once again to restore a degree of friendship with the Soviet Union which would allow sufficient levels of aid. Economic problems surfaced in the DPRK in the 1970s, from which it has never recovered. As Kim Jong Il rose in power, he cemented his father’s symbolic importance to the DPRK and symbolized the state’s gradual drift toward isolation by commissioning the Juche Tower in 1982. Erected on the shore of the Taedong opposite Kim Il-Sung Square, it broke new memorial ground as the first significant monument east of the river. The spatial importance of the Juche monument is readily apparent (it is still taller than most structures in Pyongyang over 30 years later), but the redefinition of the very chronology of the DPRK’s history which took place in 1972 was also symbolized in the Juche tower. The 25,550 blocks used to build the tower each represented one day of Kim’s life to age 70.
The Juche tower wed the ideology’s concepts of self-reliance, Korean culture and the superiority of the North Korean system to Kim Il Sung’s image in a visual representation of the 1972 decisions to change Kim’s title from Prime Minister to President and adopt Juche as the state’s official ideology. The tower is topped by an ornamental flame, giving the structure the appearance of a torch, which symbolizes, in the words of Kim Jong Il, the “great guiding idea” Juche represents for “revolutionary people” in North Korea and around the world, in “an independent era founded by the great leader Kim Il Sung.” In 1995, the Party Foundation Monument, consisting of a hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush extended toward the sky, was unveiled one kilometer northeast of the Juche tower, in a location bearing no spatial connection to Kim Il-Sung’s sprawling shrine on the river. Indeed, the wealth of the North Korean elite, particularly relative to that of the rest of its citizens, reflects the symbolic distance between the modern DPRK and its Communist roots, as well as the lack of accountability of its leaders to these principles.
After Kim Il Sung Square was enlarged in 1987 to reach the western edge of the Taedong, Pyongyang’s city center resembled an incoherent collection of architectural styles and monumental figures which all but obscured the capital’s Communist roots and pre-war history. The Soviet government buildings and museums of Pyongyang’s first development phase were now flanked by the Korean-style Grand People’s Study House and, at the opposite edge of the river, the Tower of the Juche Idea, bearing striking resemblance to, of all structures, the Washington Monument. The Juche tower, along with the Arch of Reunification, Pyongyang East Grand Theater, and the Monument to Party Founding represented a new, international architectural style, in which North Korean designers combined monumental characteristics with contemporary trends in a departure from the national style. The infamous Ryugyong Hotel, which broke ground in 1987, represented another attempt at the concept. Scholars attribute the North Korean architectural interpretation of the international style, prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, an effort to showcase Pyongyang and North Korea as modern and globalized while maintaining the superiority of socialism over capitalism.
Gradually, memorials to foreign aid have been removed from Pyongyang’s center, and public spaces dedicated to foreign leaders have been renamed. Stalin Street became Sungri Street; Mao Zedong Square was inexplicably renamed after the nearby Arch of Triumph, modeled on its counterpart in Paris, which was unveiled in 1982 to commemorate Kim’s ‘decisive’ role in defeating the Japanese. After Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, ‘Towers of Immortality’ were built across North Korea to commemorate the eternal nature of his leadership. The tallest, at 92 meters, is north of Moran Hill, obscuring the memorials to Soviet and Chinese aid to North Korea, both only a third of its height.
Kim Il Sung’s modern Pyongyang is a tribute to a deep-seated national desire, real or contrived, to be independent from the injustices wrought upon the peninsula by conflicting foreign powers. True modernity, then, will be achieved when Pyongyang is able to exist without foreign influence, free to forget a difficult past. Its Marxist-Leninist roots and necessary cooperation with neighboring China in the Korean War simply form part of that struggle, as did Kim Il Sung’s undying efforts to secure foreign aid from the very powers which have oppressed Korea. Architectural emphasis of Kim’s contributions to the North Korean state and the rise of buildings similar in form to traditional Korean structures beginning in 1960 have their roots in Kim’s 1955 introduction of the Juche idea, which called for national pride, rather than foreign influence, to direct North Korea’s people and politics in the future.
Kim is now portrayed as the embodiment of the ideal Korea
In North Korea, Kim Il Sung’s image has been linked inextricably to this narrative. His self-conception as a destined national leader with a pivotal role in Korea’s ultimate struggle for independence is fused with desire for a strong, triumphant history and a present in which Korea can stand up to its neighbors and faraway meddling powers. Kim is now portrayed as the embodiment of the ideal Korea; though DPRK policymakers and citizens alike realize how far they are from ideal existence, Kim is touted as a symbol of hope that one day, without harmful foreign presence on the Peninsula, Korea may reach an ultimate glorious destiny.
After his death in December 2011, a statue of Kim Jong Il was constructed next to that of his father at the Mansudae Grand Monument (Figure 3), continuing Kim Il Sung’s dynastic legacy. As Pyongyang grows further estranged from its Soviet origins, further cosmetic changes have been made to its center—in 2012, portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were permanently removed from Kim Il Sung Square. In addition, DPRK relations with its neighbors have not improved; in a significant expression of disapproval, China has yet to invite Kim Jong Un for an official visit. In response to China’s engagement with South Korea, the DPRK’s 2014 commemoration of the Korean War in Kim Il Sung Square proceeded with little mention of Chinese involvement in the conflict, marked by the lack of participation by Chinese officials in the festivities, which has been customary in years past. In response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in 2016, China joined the international community in supporting U.N. security council resolution 2270, which provides for the most stringent sanctions against North Korea to date. This support has been concrete rather than symbolic; reports show that China is strictly implementing the sanctions.
While protesting the sanctions, proclaiming stronger self-reliance and investing in its technology sector, North Korea seeks larger volumes of international tourism and the much-needed foreign currency it brings. Visitors lodging on Yanggak Island, about one mile south of Kim Il Sung Square, find themselves trapped when without guides to accompany them, isolated from the surrounding city by the waters of the Taedong River. Directly across the river to the west, near the Pyongyang Grand Theater, is the burgeoning Mirae Scientists Street, closely modeled on Silicon Valley in its design and referred to as “North Korea’s Silicon Valley,” lined by high-rise apartments. Though a product of North Korea’s nationalistic drive to develop nuclear weapons and technological parity with the outside world, the enterprises on Mirae Scientists Street were developed with plans to recruit technicians from around the world. Echoes of the Chollima Movement accompanied construction of the Mirae Scientists Street: state media touted “Pyongyang Speed,” a term first used in 1958 to commemorate the rapid rebuilding of Pyongyang, when praising the completion of the street in under one year.
While the future of Kim Il Sung’s country is uncertain, Pyongyang’s interaction with and struggle against foreign influence continues.
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Featured Image: view over Pyongyang City by fvfavo on 2015-09-13 08:00:08