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Pyongyang - A view from our expert author


Aerial view of Pyongyang skyline, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comThe vast, 105-storey, 330m-high pyramid of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel is the most recognisable landmark in the Pyongyang skyline © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

Pyongyang, the DPRK capital, is a showcase city, the political, cultural and educational centre of the country, a city built to impress the world with the success, progress and fortitude of the DPRK and its people. The tiled apartment blocks and concrete high-rises strut alongside the city’s wide, tree-lined boulevards cutting from titanic state buildings to monuments striking for their powerful shapes and size. Roads stretch arrow straight into the distance, linking monuments and plazas set in alignment over the horizon, across the river, across the city.

In sunlight, the streets and squares, without a fleck of dust, can literally dazzle. In rain, the harsh, grey geometries meld into the sky while vast, sweeping Korean-style eaves hurl the rainwater away. Into all this order and space some 200 parks and open spaces have been carefully slotted. Most fume-producing factories have been banished to the city’s outskirts. Pyongyang reputedly has 58m² of green belt per citizen – four times the amount prescribed by the United Nations, and in spring its hills heave with green. It is, as Kim Il Sung meant it to be, a city without parallel in Korea, or Asia. ‘The capital of our socialist homeland, Pyongyang is the political centre, the centre for culture and education and a wellspring of our revolution’ – and a well-ordered wellspring at that.

Pyongyang reputedly has 58m² of green belt per citizen – four times the amount prescribed by the United Nations, and in spring its hills heave with green. It is, as Kim Il Sung meant it to be, a city without parallel in Korea, or Asia.

In few parts of the city can be found the higgledy-piggledy mash of streets that comes from the organic growth of other cities, as individual people, firms and authorities fight over space and time; this form of Pyongyang’s layout has been virtually obliterated. Every corner of every block has been approved according to one overall, unitary plan, and there is an extraordinary homogeneity in the buildings’ design. For the parts and the whole, one design fits all as a handful of factories produce the designs of even fewer design institutes. The same singularity of purpose is visible in all the pictures, placards and slogans round the city, for which and only for which all neon gets used. It is still very much mostly the case that advertisements in Pyongyang and beyond do not promote material goods or recognisable brands, but are for promoting the ideals and leader(s) of North Korea’s socialism. Pyongyang is a mindset, an ideal, an idea, the city as the manifestation of the state, the state as the manifestation of the man.

The city limits drawn on the plans are clearly visible on the ground. The grey cliffs of the perimeter high-rise provide a sharp, vertical barrier to the fields and lowlands lapping round the city. Pyongyang doesn’t sprawl like other Asian cities, forever absorbing rural–urban migrants. The population is relatively stable at a little over three million because people do not live and work in Pyongyang without permits, which are as valued as the gold dust mined in the city’s outskirts. Koreans cannot in fact leave or enter the city without permits, as the checkpoints on the perimeter roads verify, and as a result the lack of inter-urban public transport is deliberate: if no-one needs it, why have it?

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comAt the centre of the city, Kim Il Sung Square is a huge open plaza of 75,000m² of granite, through which the great military and torch parades pass © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

The lack of traffic spares the city from pollution and the flying dust brought in and whipped up by vehicles. Incoming rural lorries and buses are hosed down just outside the city perimeters to make sure, and the regular trams and trolley buses are electric. Everyone mucks in to keep Pyongyang clean, as groups of families are responsible for keeping their immediate locale dirt-free, while brigades of older women tend to the public areas. Water trucks hose the streets. There are very few stalls or vendors and there’s little litter because there is nothing to throw away: this is not a consumer society, and what’s used gets converted.

Watch out for small tools and appliances brilliantly fashioned from drinks cans and the like. On the other hand, you see very few deliveries for stores, post or parcels for business and other service personnel who make up so much of the melee of road and pavement traffic. That facet of activity is still to come, but there is much more bustle than there was say even in 2002 or 2003, when the whole country was staggering out of the famine. One sees more people and they look healthier, less worried – happier, even.

The relative lack of road traffic still means there isn’t anything like the white noise of vehicles that outside cities have, but the streets are nowhere near as empty as they were and people are out commuting, milling and chilling. Still, visitors ask, ‘where is everybody?’ Well they’re either at work, or at home, or out in the courtyards and spaces of their residences where most of their amenities are also stashed – just not necessarily hanging out on the major thoroughfares sporadically tracked by tourists.

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