Pyongyang was designed as a workers’ utopia © Truba7113, Shutterstock
There is a great deal to impress, charm and surprise in this mysterious capital, where the slight undercurrent of a Cold War atmosphere always prevails, injecting a permanent drip of adrenaline into every second spent in the city.
The very name ‘Pyongyang’ stirs up a range of evocative thoughts and images in the mind of almost anybody who hears it; while some may envisage it as a socialist Shangri-La, the majority sadly picture this misunderstood and secretive city, which is so rarely out of the news, as something diametrically opposite – as a city of 3.3 million deranged communist automatons. Vilified in the 21st century, the world’s easternmost ‘Axis of Evil’ capital has struggled for years to accurately portray itself to the outside world, with the global media preferring to denigrate Pyongyang, as it does the entire country, rather than attempt to understand it, or approach it impartially.
This obsessively centrally planned city, where seemingly everything has its place and purpose, was designed as a workers’ utopia and is the pride of North Korea, where Kim Il Sung was born, dreams are made and the former leaders are laid to rest. This is the epicentre, the beating heart, without which the nation could not survive. In 1953, following the destruction of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung strove to create what was – in his eyes – perfection from a near-blank canvas. The blueprint for this city was socialist-modernist, with wide streets, utilitarian high-rises, grandiose civic buildings and world-class public facilities, all complemented by parks and greenery. There is no denying that Pyongyang is impressive – there are few cities where the word ‘unique’ can so justifiably be used – but of course the original vision has not been completely realised, and if you look for faults you will find them in abundance. Still, there is a great deal to impress, charm and surprise in this mysterious capital, where the slight undercurrent of a Cold War atmosphere always prevails, injecting a permanent drip of adrenaline into every second spent in the city.
Under former dynasties and long before the devastation of the Korean War, Pyongyang was a walled city, and though today the walls that protect citizens from the outside are merely bureaucratic, they are just as insurmountable. Those that live in the capital are undoubtedly the chosen few – the lucky ones. Pyongyangites are largely blessed by their heritage; of the younger generations almost everybody was born in the city, incongruous to most Asian cities where rural–urban migration is a pressing issue. Owing to their Songbun (social class), Pyongyangites have poor knowledge of what lies beyond their sanctuary, just as those in the hinterlands have little knowledge of life in the ivory tower of the capital. Pyongyang is not North Korea – it is the emerald city that everybody else in the country strives to reach. To see only the capital, with its bombastic monuments and monumental edifices, will give an unbalanced view of the country as a whole – but to see it is truly something to behold.
At the centre of the city, Kim Il Sung Square is a huge open plaza of 75,000m² of granite © Eric Lafforgue
Should you be mature in years and fortunate enough to have visited the USSR in the 1960s, China in the 1970s or Albania under Hoxha you may have an idea of what to expect; but for the rest of us Pyongyang is the last city standing, a relic of communism that soldiers on while almost everywhere else has moved on – in many ways feeling more akin to a dystopian city from celluloid than an actual place you’d expect to find here on earth. But change is coming – streets that were devoid of traffic a few years ago now have cars, shops with once-barren shelves are now full of goods, and a small but growing middle class show us that while all Pyongyangites are equal, some are more equal than others. The Pyongyang of tomorrow may well be a better place than it is today for the millions who call it home, but the Pyongyang of today could not be more fascinating. An increasingly electric atmosphere fills the city, as if after decades in the wilderness the prospect of real change is just around the corner, one that will define the Pyongyang, and North Korea, of tomorrow. Whatever the country becomes in the years to come, it appears unlikely that it will be of the nature envisaged back in 1948, when the country was founded with the help of Georgia’s infamous hot-headed son, Joseph Stalin.