Architecture is Propaganda: How North Korea Turned the Built Environment into a Tool for Control

Architecture is propaganda. Throughout my two years of visiting and living in North Korea the country slowly revealed to me the details of this evolved and refined tool for totalitarian control of the country’s population. The West views the country with incredulity—surely this cannot be a functioning country where people lead “everyday lives?” Surely the country’s populace can’t possibly buy into this regime? But I assure you that they do. People have careers, they go to work on the bus, and those women crying over the death of their leader were doing so through their own initiative, if not out of genuine emotion. How is this possible? This is a carefully constructed regime which has, at its heart, an unprecedented understanding of how architecture and urbanism can influence and control people. Coming second only to the military on the list of party priorities, the design of the built environment has had an incalculable effect on reinforcing the ideologies of the North Korean regime and conveying these to the people.

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The view from Kim Il Sung Square, in front of the Grand People's Study House, looking towards the Juche Tower. Image © Alex Davidson

It is not that the architecture in Pyongyang has to be world standard, or even of a good standard at all; the people just need to believe that it is. In fact, due to the level of control, the buildings need only to do the bare minimum, capturing an architectural idea in order to convince the people of a notion of power, progress or wealth. The level of isolation is such that there is no way for citizens to compare the structures of their home country to the grandiose buildings of power around the world. Koreans I spoke to in the Grand People’s Study House seemed convinced, and in their minds rightly so, that this admittedly impressive building was the greatest in all of the world. Why shouldn’t they? The Arch of Triumph, a gigantic arch straddling one of the main highways through the city adorned with stories of Kim Il Sung, receives no comparison here with its counterpart in Paris or any other Roman arch around the world before that. It just has to be a symbol of power, wealth and, in the minds of the people, be an idea conceived by their leader. It does what it’s meant to do—people speak of the buildings with genuine pride in their eyes, and they see them as a gift from their leaders to whom they are ever grateful. This is, of course, after over 60 years of socialist rule. Few in the country would have been alive to see the city before the Kim dynasty; those that were must only remember it as a pile of rubble after years of war.

The Grand People's Study House. Image © Koryo Tours courtesy of Alex Davidson
Arch of Triumph. Image © Alex Davidson

After the Korean War the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), led by Kim Il Sung and supported by the Soviets, was left with a scene of complete and utter destruction; with the exception of a handful of buildings Pyongyang had been completely flattened. For a young general with socialist ideals this was seen as a clean slate, on top of which a new country, both physically and ideologically, could be built. Today, even with knowledge of the outside world, it is hard not to admire the clear, axial urban plan of the city designed with the help of established communists, the Soviet Army. The designers of Pyongyang focused on portraying ideals to the individual on the ground. Standing at the foot of a monument celebrating the Worker’s Party, clear views open up across huge lawns adorned with fountains, and over the river Taedong to gigantic statues of both the late leaders. The monument symbolizes an appreciation of the people, idolizes their community spirit, and looks out to the men that supposedly gave them this city. Even to a visitor it’s a powerful motif and a spectacular view, and for a split second this tranquil viewing point might even make you believe that maybe people don’t have it so bad here. It’s not until the apartment blocks in your peripheral vision come back into focus with their missing windows and permanently sodden concrete that you remember just how poor the quality of life in this city is in comparison with the initial dream of a socialist utopia that was planned decades ago.

View from Workers' Party Monument, showing city's axis and poor building quality either side. Image © Alex Davidson
Apartments either side of the main city axis. Image © Alex Davidson

The Soviets, during their partnership with Kim Il Sung’s regime, left behind some monumental and genuinely impressive buildings, but almost overnight the Soviet Union collapsed and suddenly the North Korean regime was left without money or support. As the DPRK pushed to maintain an image of power and strength in the eyes of its people, genuine quality was replaced for buildings that merely gave the impression of wealth; construction quality plummeted and build speed increased. Even today buildings are in almost all cases constructed with weak and rudimentary concrete blocks that are hand shaped and comprised primarily of ballast. But to the layman on the street it looks like the city is in a constant state of rapid growth, and of course no one hears about it when an apartment block collapses. A recent development, named “Dubai” by expats living in the city, is an attempt at creating modern riverside apartment blocks. But don’t let the multi-colored neon lights fool you, the buildings themselves are but poorly made, barely insulated shells not suited for a standard of living even close to what you’d imagine. To your average North Korean however, they’re seen as the ultimate trophy home, one they might be awarded if they do their best for the Party; sadly, they don’t know any better.

The "concrete" blocks used to build Pyongyang consist of mostly ballast form the river. Image © Alex Davidson
"Dubai," central Pyongyang's "modern" apartment complexes. Image © Alex Davidson

The remaining buildings of actual quality in the city are the original governmental ministry buildings, which take prominent seats within the cityscape but could have easily been—and probably were—plucked out of a Soviet building catalogue. The grandiose steps used to lead up through a front of concrete pilasters adorned with symbols of prosperity and solidarity, into large, brutal yet beautiful entrance halls of marble with colossal chandeliers. Now though, the interiors are up for refurbishment, and the replacement? Chinese faux-marble on the floors and fake gems in the door handles. To the workers who use the building every day this appears to be an upgrade, and this enforces what they’re being told: that the country is getting stronger and richer.

Pyongyang trainstation, built by the Soviets. Image © Alex Davidson

Before the Soviet Union fell the DPRK had already been developing its own ideas and had begun imposing them upon their people. As the regime gained confidence in their ability to run a country and consolidated their power, they decided on a more nationalist approach to rule and created the current political stance of “Juche,” based on the principles of political, economic and military independence. In both their ideologies and architecture this meant showcasing what North Korea could produce, independent of outside influences, instilling a sense of national pride in its people. In conjunction with this idea, a new style of architecture began to appear across Pyongyang. Major cultural venues and public buildings with immense concrete casts of the traditional Korean Giwa styled roofs, sporting pastel green tiles, were suddenly built “for the people.” These buildings kept the same socialist content that had been donated by the Soviets but now had a national character which instilled a sense of nationalism and contributed to an independent North Korean socialist identity. The people love these buildings, as do tourists, for it’s in these buildings that they have fun. On special days out, or for the fortunate few with the luxury of freedom, these buildings signify the chance to read some foreign books, watch the circus or enjoy a concert. The mental connection is made between having a great time and being in a building that represents your country; ideology is enforced through a simple mechanism of positive association.

One of Pyongyang's theaters, which combines ideas of "modern design," traditional Giwa roofs, and socialist content. Image © Alex Davidson

North Korean architecture today is a result of the country’s isolation and because of this has evolved in its own incestuous way. Now however, word of the outside world is trickling in and the regime are starting to realize that they’re going to have to try and catch up with their Asian neighbors, or risk losing credibility among their own people. As they can no longer shun the mass globalization and urbanization of the rest of the world, the government has announced an “Age of Construction” in which they intend to make North Korea an international contender for tourism, technology and commerce. With an increase in communications and trade with China, aided by a severe lack of enforcement of the sanctions imposed by the international community, the DPRK are having a good go at it. Just as cultural buildings were linked to nationalism, these “modern” designs have been employed for just about any building that symbolizes progress; whether it be new up-market restaurants, factories or technology centers. After all, how could the Koreans reject the idea that their technologies are becoming ever more advanced when their science institute is coated in metal and glass? At a time when the DPRK is boasting of strapping nuclear warheads to intercontinental missiles, it’s not enough to merely tell their people this—the government needs visual proof that there have indeed been some technological developments that could give this story some credibility.

Pyongyang's new science and technology center. Image © Koryo Tours courtesy of Alex Davidson
A recent residential tower block, containing apartments for scientists and teachers. Image © Koryo Tours courtesy of Alex Davidson

With that being said, as with earlier architecture styles, certain adaptations are made to conform to the narrative set by the government, and these interpretations of contemporary design can therefore be described as no more than a retro-futuristic interpretation of what modern architecture should be. Ironically, the Koreans have copied the Chinese copy of American capitalist architecture; even big LED billboards on the front of the buildings have been copied, except in Korea they try to sell you Juche diatribe rather than a fancy new car. Unfortunately, the flashy new envelope hides the same deadly construction methods that give new North Korean buildings single-figure life spans.

During my stay in the country I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Pyongyang University of Architecture, the sole source of building design and engineering in the country, and have a sit down with the heads of the school to discuss how our countries, so very different to one another, approach architecture. Their enthusiasm to learn what I had to say came as rather a surprise, albeit a refreshing one, as I’d expected the individuals themselves to be as rigid as their design ethos, and their opinions of the outside world to be as hostile as those of their government. But instead they shared with me the ideas behind their designs with such pride, having finally been given the opportunity to explain their work to a foreign architect. Inspiration for their designs, in an approach that is rare among Western architects, comes from a very figurative way of looking at things; concert halls that mimic piano keys, or a table-tennis complex that symbolizes a table and net. As with everything else in the country, individuals are not left to make decisions by themselves. All designs have to stay in keeping with the underlying values of the Party and need to gain the approval of those in command—and in many cases from leader Kim Jong Un, whose say is final. The recently completed terminal for Pyongyang Airport, for example, had its design changed mid-construction after the “Supreme Leader” visited the site, disliked the entrance and had it demolished and reconstructed differently. It was reported in the foreign media that this decision came with grave consequences for the chief-architect, who was said to have been executed as a result of this fatal design choice.

The new ice skating rink, an example of one of North Korea's more "modern" designs. Image © Alex Davidson

Whether or not these claims have any truth to them—hopefully it’s no surprise to read that much of the “news” coming out of North Korea is a fantastic exaggeration at best—stories like this help highlight the genuine dangers that North Korean designers face on a daily basis. It is the architect’s natural instinct to want to apply their own design ideas to a project, something that most of us probably take for granted, but on a day-to-day basis this instinct has to be buried deep and replaced instead with the desire to do the bidding of their leader. As a result, North Korean architects are left with no choice but to produce the propaganda that feeds the machine and keeps their own people under the heavy hand of the North Korean government.

The Ryugyong Hotel. Started in 1987 and still only complete on the exterior, the hotel has been a empty shell looming over the city for years. Image © Alex Davidson

Architecture is propaganda, but the architects of the DPRK are just the humans caught up in the game, being used as a tool. From what I saw, they are just trying to make the best out of a difficult situation, yet they have in their hands the tools to completely control an entire nation. Without outside influences to help guide the country and its architecture to a better future for the people, the country risks falling into a stalemate, trapped in today’s status quo. But the architects that I met displayed a genuine thirst for knowledge, for inspiration, to share, to show off and to ultimately be the ones to shape their country for the better. They hold within them the best dreams of a socialist utopia, but are held back not only by the regime but also by the restrictions put on them by the outside world.

Yesterday's Future, Today: What's it Like to Work as an Architect in North Korea?

Is it then within the power of international visitors to make life better for the average North Korean? We have already seen how a gradual exposure to modern designs can change the architectural direction of the regime. If their architecture now keeps people trapped in this state, can further input of ours at the very least alleviate some of the suffering and danger that these people have to go through?

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Cite: Alex Davidson. "Architecture is Propaganda: How North Korea Turned the Built Environment into a Tool for Control" 06 Sep 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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