The capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang, has been developed as a showpiece for the country, demonstrating to both outsiders and the North Korean people the strength and power of the regime. It also makes a strong statement about the country’s ambitions to be self-reliant in the face of often hostile challenges from elsewhere; those challenges being of course both political and at times physical.
Like most showpieces, the reality behind the image is rather different. But that doesn’t prevent Pyongyang from being the most fascinating of cities, as long as you accept it for what it is.
The city was largely destroyed by US bombs during the Korean War. That devastation ironically created the opportunity to develop what at times seems more like a stage set than a place to live; an impression heightened by the relatively low numbers of people on its streets.
While the whole city is aimed to impress, some buildings in particular stand out for their innovative, unusual or just plain weird design. Let me introduce you to a few of them for Tina’s Lens Artists Challenge theme of Interesting Architecture.
Mirae Scientists Street
This street is a showpiece within a showpiece. It is one of the newest developments in the capital, officially opened in November 2015. It is one of which the Koreans are very proud, as it showcases their ambitions in architectural design, housing for the people (the ‘right sort’ of people in this case) and science and technology. The apartment blocks here have been built to provide homes for employees of the Kim Chaek University of Technology. ‘Mirae’ means ‘Future’ and the designs are indeed futuristic; but the name also promotes the idea that this is a country looking to the future. It was built in just over a year under, naturally, the guidance of Kim Jong Un.
One building in particular stands out. Our guide told me it was designed by a 21 year old architecture student. From above, she explained, it has the shape of a flower but at street level it looks like an atom exploding. This is the Mirae Unha Tower, at 53 storeys high the tallest on the street.
All along the street are scientific motifs: stars adorn the lampposts; atoms the sides or tops of buildings; and the footbridge that we climbed for better views towards the end of the walk has a dramatic atom monument at its central point.
The Ryugyong Hotel
This has become something of an iconic building here, albeit not for good reasons! It is 330 metres high (105 stories) and was intended to be the world’s tallest hotel; a real statement about the ambition of North Korea. They started work on it in 1987 but stopped in 1992 due to the dire state of the economy, in part caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country’s main international trading partner and source of support. By then it had reached its planned height but was windowless, a concrete shell. Work restarted in 2008 and the exterior was completed in 2011.
The plan was to open in the following year, to mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. The North Koreans do like to mark significant anniversaries with the construction of major Pyongyang landmarks, but on this occasion nothing happened. Several international hotel chains are said to have shown interest, including Kempinski. And in recent years there have been some signs of activity at the site, including the installation of animated LED displays which light up the building at night, but it remains unopened; in fact it has the dubious honour of being the world’s tallest unoccupied building!
My cityscape views show how it dominates the Pyongyang skyline.
Ryomyong New Town
We visited this part of the city to eat lunch in the Tulip Restaurant. I’m not sure whether it has taken its name from the building design, or if the building was deliberately intended to look like a tulip from the start.
The Ryongwang Pavilion
This is one of the few historic-looking structures in Pyongyang. I say ‘historic-looking’ advisedly, because this is a 1950s reconstruction of a building badly damaged, like the rest of the city, in US bombing during the Korean War. Our guide told us that it was a favourite spot for artists and writers to observe the beauty of the Taedong River. A story tells how one of them, a Koryo-dynasty poet called Kim Hwang Won, broke his brush and wept after being unable find words to express the beauty of the view. I guess it’s changed a bit since then! Pyongyang is a surprisingly (to outsiders) attractive city, but I wouldn’t say that it is indescribably beautiful!
Another story about the pavilion dates from even earlier times, the 16th century. Pyongyang had fallen to the Japanese invaders. Under the orders of the Korean General Kim Ung So, a courtesan named Gye Wolhyang seduced and drugged the Japanese commander, Konishi Hidanokami, in the pavilion. She then led General Kim to the sleeping commander, where he beheaded him. Although Kim escaped, Kye was later executed for her role in the plot. Later, when Kim Ung So returned to liberate Pyongyang in 1593, he built a shrine to her next to the pavilion.
Pyongyang Central Ideals Zoo
From what I have read this is a very old-fashioned zoo, with basic cages and poor conditions for the animals. Our UK guide Carl did tell me it has improved in recent years, but still falls short of Western standards. So I am glad it wasn’t on our itinerary.
But I’m also glad that we got just a glimpse of this rather amazing entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that many small children would fear visiting if it meant walking through this ginormous tiger mouth!
Pyongyang Central Station
Unfortunately tourists are not allowed inside the station here; I gather that even if catching a train you are kept in a separate waiting room, away from the locals. But on a rare walk in the city we had the chance to get some photos of the building’s impressive exterior.
It dates from 1958 and is a great example of the socialist architecture of that decade. It has a clock tower, two bronze statues (a worker and a farmer); and of course the essential portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Other interesting buildings
I’ll finish with a selection of other buildings. Notice how some are designed to reflect their purpose. The planetarium at the Three Revolution Exhibition looks like a planet. The ice rink is designed in the shape of the hats traditionally worn by skaters here. The May Day Stadium (the largest stadium in the world) is supposed to look like a magnolia, the national flower of the DPRK. The photo was taken from the top of the Juche Tower. It was in this stadium that we saw the astounding Mass Games which I really must share with you one day soon!
Whether echoing their purpose or simply designed to impress, it’s hard to ignore the many unusual architectural styles here. Which is, of course, exactly their intention!
I visited Pyongyang in 2019