View of a city with river and modern architecture
Architecture,  DPRK,  Lens-Artists

The astounding architecture of Pyongyang

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.

Man looking at mural of construction work
Mural of Kim Jong Un inspecting construction work on Mirae Scientists Street

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.

Modern apartment blocks in green setting
The Tulip Restaurant

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.

Building with large tiger's head forming the entrance
Pyongyang Central Ideals Zoo

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


    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Leighton 🙂 That mural is pretty typical of the ones you see all over the country. The Kims are ‘experts’ on building construction and always ready to give what they call ‘field guidance’ – as they are for farming, manufacturing etc etc!

  • Annie Berger

    Never expected to see a travel blog on North Korea so this caught me by surprise, Sarah. I am a fam of modern architecture so was quite intrigued by many of the attractive nad unusual buildings. Thanks for your photos and insights into a different world for most of us.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Annie 😊 As you can imagine, North Korea was one of our most memorable trips so I have quite a few posts on it if you’re interested – and no doubt more to come in the future!

  • Leya

    Fascinating, Sarah! Spectacular I would say – but nooooo the Zoo entrance is really horrid. Many children must be scared of walking in there.

  • rkrontheroad

    Some amazingly modern creations, in such a short time. How different the reality behind the image. This was another thought-provoking post. The zoo entrance is spectacular, but I have to agree it could be scare to a child!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth 😊 Is it that the reality behind the image is so different, or is the image PART of the reality? One of the key imperatives of the DPRK leadership is the creation of the right image, as with all propaganda-focused regimes. Understanding why is critical. They need to maintain the illusion that their country is superior to others and these buildings are part of that illusion. But one driver for that is to push back against the sanctions imposed by the international community by showing that they have the wealth to build like this (even though they don’t really) and show their self-reliance which is a key element of their Juche philosophy as developed by Kim Il Sung.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you John 😀 Actually however, most people CAN visit (Covid aside). The US bans its citizens from doing so although the DPRK would permit entry, and South Koreans aren’t welcome, but I think most other nationalities are, if they choose to go 🙂

  • Manja Maksimovič

    This is beyond extraordinary! 😮 I love the stadium. And I think I’ll dream of that tiger entrance. I have never seen anything like it. But like you I wouldn’t wish to enter because any kind of suffering upsets me too much. Also, see yourself mentioned in my post for this challenge coming up today, soon.

  • Gradmama2011

    Very interesting architecture, unexpected, thought I can’t say why. I love modern buildings, and the color schemes used is lovely. Pyongyang is another place I would never have seen had it not been for your photo work. 🙂

      • Gradmama2011

        I love the shapes and colors, lights and form. It makes me think of our city of Cleveland, which lights up its buildings somewhat, but uses garish primary colors. Every time I see it I think they need a lighting coordinator. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Margaret 🙂 The average worker in Pyongyang may well have a decent, if small, apartment. You have to be of a certain Songbun (a form of class system based on loyalty to the party, parents’ and grandparents’ ditto, and education) to even live in the city, and once there you are likely to enjoy a better standard of living than elsewhere in the country. In other parts you are right, accommodation standards will be low compared with what we would expect. On the plus side, no one is homeless as the state provides free accommodation for all; on the minus side, you don’t get to choose where you live, it comes with the job that the main breadwinner does.

      • margaret21

        So things have improved since the famine, when there were homeless people about, apparently. You won’t know whether divorce is a thing, I guess? Because that would have an effect on the government’s willingness to house you, perhaps?

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Things have definitely improved since then but life is still tougher in many parts than it is in Pyongyang. We went to Chongjin, where the famine hit hardest. Our guide was even willing to admit that people there had been dropping dead in the streets from starvation. Today it’s recovering but the standard of living is still well below that of the capital.

          As to divorce, I believe it happens but isn’t common. If you were a single parent household, say a mother alone with kids, you would get a home commensurate with the mother’s job. And there’s free childcare and healthcare on the state too. People’s incomes are low by our standards but there are fewer things to spend them on, mainly just food and clothes – and even then they get a rice ration I think.

        • Anonymous

          I had a totally different vision in my head about what this place looks like! Thanks for sharing all of this. Glad u didn’t make it to the zoo, that may have been too sad.

  • Tina Schell

    Amazing Sarah. This is a place I will surely never see. I had absolutely no idea it was so incredible! I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating your coverage of this one!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tina, and for the challenge theme that prompted me to share these images 🙂 I agree, this isn’t what you might imagine North Korea to look like, and it’s important to say that much of it doesn’t! But it is an amazing sight nevertheless 😀

  • Easymalc

    I’ve seen some of your pictures of Pyongyang before of course, but they look so much better here. Both the architecture and your photos are truly amazing.

    • lgopinath

      Sarah…as usual a very informative post on NK. A country to which not many tourists go….so it’s like an opening up of the country to the rest of the world. I have of course not been there. But I am told that the regime is very particular about portraying a very powerful image ….in the bargain telling its own people about their power.How much of what they claim is true , needs to stand the test of time….

      • Sarah Wilkie

        Thank you for this thoughtful response. Yes, image is everything to the regime there. The issue in this case is that what you see in Pyongyang isn’t true of the rest of the country, but at least they are getting a little more open about that. We didn’t just see the ‘show towns’ but also the much more deprived north east of the country (although we weren’t allowed to photograph some things there!)

          • Sarah Wilkie

            Well I’ve never yet visited a country that didn’t forbid certain photography – borders, military areas etc. Those are the main restrictions in most of North Korea too, complicated by the fact that the army do much of the construction so building sites are off limits too. In Chonjin we were asked not to photograph one specific area, a harbour full of small fishing boats. I have no idea why and you can’t ask or reason with them!

            They also don’t like you photographing signs of poverty – not, they say, because they want to pretend poverty doesn’t exist there (they freely admit that it does) but because they worry that negative images will be used to portray a one-sided picture of the country. We couldn’t photograph ox carts, for instance, because they are embarrassed that they didn’t reach their target of fully mechanising farming before now. In vain we told them that there are ox carts all over Asia!!

            Finally, any photos that disrespect the leaders are banned, e.g. silly poses in front of the statues. But it’s far less restrictive on photography than I imagined before we went – I came back with thousands!

  • slfinnell

    That zoo entrance would definitely cause alarm in some small children. Fascinating architecture though on all your pics! So sad the war destroyed the historical.

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