North Korean Urbanism Sets a Global Example 1

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
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Pyongyang City
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While a market economy is coming to North Korea, some architects believe capitalist societies could learn from socialist urbanism, which sees urban space as publically-owned and not simply land for real estate development.

As with many other post-socialist cities and societies, North Korea is undergoing dramatic economic, social and political change. The nature, characteristics and limits of urban spaces in the country have largely been defined by the Korean War; the conflict left the country devastated, with the destruction of, on average, 85 to 90 per cent of most major cities.

In a recent interview with NK News, architect Dongwoo Yim – author of Pyongyang and Pyongyang After, a history and analysis of urban spaces in the North Korean capital -talked about the past and the future of Pyongyang. While he believes North Korea will inevitably adopt a market economy, he said cities around the world could learn from Pyongyang, especially in terms of taking advantage of using the city’s most attractive locations for public use.

Aerial view Pyongyang city

Aerial view of Pyongyang

Pyongyang is the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea and the largest city in the country. Located on the banks of the Taedong River, Pyongyang’s population is estimated at 3 million people.

Conducted by NK News‘ academic/research director Gianluca Spezza, the interview with Yim was centred around one question: “If Korea were to reunify, how would Pyongyang posture itself against Seoul, South Korea’s megapolis capital?”

Pyongyang is situated in a very strategic location, within a two-hour flight from major cities such as Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul, which could be either a huge impediment or a great opportunity, depending on how urban planners deal 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,” Yim explained.

View of Pyongyang city

View of Pyongyang from the Tower of the Juche Idea.

As a consequence, Pyongyang cannot be a rival city to Seoul, which is already a world-class megalopolis. The best strategy that the city can take might be to target a niche market. Focusing on certain industries in order to build up the character of the city, such as education and culture, can be the key to a successful future. This is because the city already has a certain identity, as the upper class elite in North Korea choose Pyongyang for higher education.

Yim predicted that major urban spaces in Pyongyang, such as Kim Il Sung Square, will be used as public space offering a wide range of urban activities, such as commercial activities, entertainment and public events.

H added that Pyongyang puts public and cultural buildings in prime locations instead of using those locations for office or commercial buildings, even though the latter could be more profitable for the city in terms of taxes.

“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,” Yim said.

Yim noted there are many interesting characteristics found commonly in socialist cities or socialist urban planning strategies. 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 city’s layout: spatial equality, extensive green space, and symbolism and the central city.

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.

Yim suggests public spaces can be relevant in a post-dictatorship North Korea, and that they should be re-appropriated rather than razed for their history.

“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,” he said.

Comparing potential future development methods to those seen in China and South Korea, Yim proposes for Pyongyang a development plan known as the “Bilbao effect,” which is heavy on catalytic architecture and soft on strategy. He noted that Pyongyang has very strict development restrictions that keep it from expanding, and the city will not be remodelling its mass-demonstration public spaces anytime soon.

“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”, Yim said.

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  1. Joel Mitchell

    If the two countries could reunite, that would probably be good.

    Unfortunately, any ideas that this will happen or that a market economy is coming to North Korea or that the country is undergoing 'dramatic economic, social and political change' are well short of the mark. The reality is that this repressive socialist regime which has seen one family in power for six decades maintains control only by spoiling the military whilst putting whole families in jail whenever one family member so much as listens to an unauthorised radio broadcast (and even gives people life sentences in prison before they are born) which sees anything to do with change as a threat to their power and will just go on repressing its people forever in a day.

    Possibly the only form of change has come from the springing up of informal markets and growing underground importation of DVDs from South Korea, which are finally raising the people's awareness of how badly their repressive government is failing them.