Architecture and Politics are deeply integrated, both having the ability to and continuously aiming at influencing people. They both focus on psychological user experience.

There is a Latin saying, ‘ Urbem latericium invenit, marmoream reliquit ‘  which translates to, ‘He found the city, a city of bricks, he left it, a city of marble.’

The grandeur of a city is decided by the grandeur of its Architecture. Earlier it was based on factors like ornamentation, size, number of columns, and heavy materials such as marble denoted the richness of the society (Great examples are Greek and Roman Architecture). Our architecture today is shaped by The great depression and the Wars, which has also shaped us and global leaders to shift our priorities from form to function.

The politically inclined architecture of capitals is a series that aims at understanding how Architecture is used as a tool in Politics, and how the urban fabric and place making is affected due to this.

Taking the gist from ‘Influence of Religion on Ancient Indian Architecture’ and ‘How Architecture is More Political than we’d Like to Admit,’ it is a fact that the combination of ideological beliefs and (however biased) iron-handed actions fuel the change in people as well as their surroundings. Each country went through these significant events that charted the future of their nation. One such country where the dramatic political events formed the country as we see it is North Korea. Or more importantly, the particular place we will be talking about (as you have read the title) is Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Background of Korea

During the 1890s, China and Japan went fighting for gaining control of Korea in maritime trading. Korea always had been a vassal state for the Qing dynasty, the ruling kingdom of China at that time. The First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) resulted in Japan taking control of Korea after the Qing government sued for peace.

Japan perceived Russia as a threat to their plans to expand further into Asia. Japanese, during the peak of the modernized Meiji Era, offered Russia the land of Manchuria to recognize Japanese control over Korea. However, Russia refused and asked for the North of Korea to be the buffer state. With Russia’s refusal and failure in negotiations, a war broke out in 1904-1905, which Japan won. Japan-Korea treaty was signed in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War, making Korea a protectorate under Japanese reign.

With this treaty, Korea lost all its diplomatic rights to contact other countries and fully submitted its trade, governance and people’s rights to Japan. Emperor Gojong, the ruler of Korea during these political developments, was forced to abdicate due to his efforts on protesting against Japanese forces. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 after its Resident-General (Ito Hirobumi) was assassinated by a Korean activist in 1909.

From there, Japan took strict action in establishing their control. This included suppressing their cultural identity, extreme measures for repressing peace rallies (cue in Jallianwala Bagh-esque scenario) and the prohibition of education in the Korean language.

The infamous atomic bombing on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945 marked the defeat of Axis Powers at the hands of Allied Forces. Japan gave up control of Korea on 15th August 1945. Korea, after Its freedom, was divided into two parts by an imaginary border known as 38th Parallel. The U.S.A. took control of the southern portion of Korea, whereas Russia took control of the northern part of Korea. After attempts of conquests from both sides and politics during the Cold War, the reunification of North and South Korea was unsuccessful. Hence, the formation of North Korea came into being.

Politics Shaping The Architecture of Pyongyang

During the Russian occupation of North Korea, the Soviet General recommended Kim Il-sung for Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea, the provisional government. During this period, Kim Il-sung wanted to reunite Korea with the socialist ideology. With this, Soviet General and Kim Il-sung gained the support of Joseph Stalin, in attempts to capture South Korea. After the attempts in conquering and negotiations for reunification failed, Kim Il-sung ruled the newly founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim Il-sung’s experience of continuous rebellion against the Japanese order had bolstered his decision to oust all elements representing Japanese culture. Japanese architecture too was wiped clean from the face of Pyongyang. What came into existence in the capital city is Brutalist and Stalinist architecture, which later evolved towards Post-Modernism in some of their structures.

Kim Il-sung introduced the folk aspect of their culture into the forefront through various means. Moranbong Theatre (1954) and Taedongmun Cinema (1955), few of early independence structures, had Korean influences channelled through (ironically) Neo-Classical elements. Octagonal columns, green roof tiles, statues of workers and carvings of flora-fauna are some most seen elements in Korean architecture. The Japanese interiors of these beautiful structures were erased (in 2003 and 2005 respectively), maintaining the ‘no-Japanese’ status.

The cityscape was dotted with multiple colourful apartment buildings, cities carefully planned under the vision of Kim Il-sung and later his successor, Kim Jong-il. Multiple buildings built throughout the reign of Kim Il-sung resemble the uniformly placed similar-looking and functional structures as seen in typical Stalinist architecture.

Image by Peter Anta from Pixabay Early city planning is a colourful mass in an otherwise oppressive regime of Kim dynasty.

Kim Il-sung’s inspiration from Moscow Metro Station gave birth to Yongwang Metro Station (completed in 1987), which holds up the North Korean architectural elements. The island platform is serenaded with arches, sculpted crowns around the edges of impost and well-lit interiors. What makes it even more North Korean, is the elaborate murals describing the heroics of Kim Il-sung, propagated and promoted as the saviour and God of this nation.

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Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash            
The Korean architectural elements are seen within Yongwang Metro Station.

Kim Il-sung developed a cult of personality among citizens, gaining trust and unquestioning loyalty. He made a heroic image of himself, claiming to be born on Mt. Paektu (a place of significance), inventing the hamburger and many other feats. Going further, one constant observation one could make is that major developments in built surroundings occurred during events of significance alone.

The statue in Mansu Hill Grand Monument, featuring Kim Il-sung on his 60th birthday in 1972, was a 20-meter tall bronze statue. Later on, a statue of Kim Jong-il, after his death, was added beside his father’s statue in the same place in 2012.

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Image by Peter Anta from Pixabay   
It is a common practice to place a bouquet and bow before taking a photograph of the statues. This ‘cult personality’ creation that was ingrained well into the residents and constantly informed to the visitors as well.

The Juche ideology, i.e. the idea of self-reliant nationalist economy, had them closed off contact from many countries and relying on their resources. Their GDP is majorly constituted by farming, for which the area was known for before the partition. They also are reported to have factories of fabric that are outsourced to China, indicating strongly of actualizing upon their ideals. The 42 meters tall Juche tower (1982) was built on Kim Il-Sung’s 70th birthday, emphasizing the ideology within their nation.

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Picture by yeowatzup from Wikipedia Commons

The need to progress and evolution of architecture is apparent with many other initiatives made by the Kim dynasty, to accommodate their citizens. Many structures ended up looking unique to the Korean landscape but ‘inspired’ from the outside world for the visitors. Be it the Pyongyang Ice Rink (1982) or its own Arch of Triumph (1982), the events behind its construction are significant but come off as eclectic, which diminishes the gravity of events. The Rungrado May Day stadium (1989) with a seating capacity of 1.14 lakh (114 thousand), the largest in the world, shows the hope of hosting international events in their turf for the foreseeable future. Similarly, gymnasiums, creches and children’s play palaces were built around the city in recent history, increasing their stature as ultimate providers and caring rulers.

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Image by Tomoyuki Mizuta from Pixabay        
The Arch of Triumph is made of 22,500 granite blocks and has 3 tiered terrace, making it 10 meters taller than the French original Arc de Triomphe.

However, the continued exposure to the world also brought in some interesting elements within its cityscape, boasting the progress of the country. Some of the standouts include the planetarium (now not in use) in the Three Revolutions Exhibition (1992). However, Ryugyong Hotel (1987), the most prominent unused skyscraper, is a prime example of a post-modernist structure. The ambitions of the Kim dynasty were in the right place but due to an economic crisis, which pushed the construction into hiatus. The construction was completed recently in 2013, now used for showing animations, films and announcements on a large fitted with LED screen panels on it. This was an unfortunate indication to the world at that time that the progress intended to show was not the actual one.

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Photo by Joseph Ferris III from Flickr                
The white (or rather glassy) elephant, Ryugyong hotel stands for North Korea’s ambitions and its failure in achieving it.

Many parallels are seen around the world, where the person in power controls the surroundings. These are now the relics of history in other countries, but a living one in the city of Pyongyang.


Rethinking The Future (RTF) is a Global Platform for Architecture and Design. RTF through more than 100 countries around the world provides an interactive platform of highest standard acknowledging the projects among creative and influential industry professionals.

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