Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1910, and remained under Japanese rule until the close of World War II in August 1945. While the Allies had continued to vacillate on the fate of Korea come the end of the war, by August – as per an agreement between the two states – the United States occupied the southern half of the peninsula, while the Soviet Union occupied the northern half, with the precise point of division the 38th parallel. An immediate attempt to establish an independent post-war Korean government was rejected by the United States, who feared that the provisional People’s Republic of Korea was too left-wing, holding communist principles, and therefore likely to tend towards the Soviets.
Over the next few years, separate governments began to evolve in the south and north, propped up respectively by the US and Soviet militaries. In the south – the site of the Korean capital Seoul – a string of left-wing rebellions were violently suppressed by the government under Syngman Rhee. In the north the situation was less bloody, although a campaign of land redistribution, under the government of Kim Il-sung, compelled many former landowners to flee.
In the early autumn of 1948, in quick succession these separate governments were consolidated, with the formation of the conservative Republic of Korea in the south, and the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north. Most US and Soviet forces withdrew from the Korean peninsula. But as both sides sought to reunify Korea under their control, and with fighting intensifying along the border, eventually civil war broke out when North Korean troops – supported by the Soviet Union and later by the recently established People’s Republic of China – invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950.
Over the next year, Seoul would change hands four times, as United Nations Command forces, led by the United States, intervened on behalf of an ailing South Korea. The subsequent war of attrition lasted until 27 July 1953. Though a new border, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, was established by the armistice agreement signed on that date, this barrier simply crosses the terrain from southwest to northeast of the 38th parallel. North Korea had gained the city of Kaesong but lost a little land, amounting to 3,900 square kilometres.
The large-scale bombing of North Korea by the US Air Force had continued throughout the Korean War. North Korea had been devastated as an industrial society. Air Force General Curtis LeMay later stated, ‘we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.’ Pyongyang, the de facto capital of the Democratic People’s Republic, had been the target of many of the biggest raids, and saw 75% of its area destroyed, with local officials counting a total of 428,748 bombs dropped on the city.
Pyongyang was rapidly rebuilt after the war, largely in the style of socialist classicism which had been pioneered by the architect Boris Iofan. Aid came from across the Soviet Union, with funds from Moscow and technical assistance from East Germany, while China contributed manpower. Plans for the new city reportedly went on display the very day of the armistice, with The Pyongyang Review in 1985 recalling, ‘While streets were in flames, an exhibition showing the general plan of restoration of Pyongyang was held at the Moranbong Underground Theater. On the way of victory […] fireworks which streamed high into the night sky of the capital in a gun salute briefly illuminated the construction plan of the city which would rise soon with a new look’.
The Kim Il-sung Square, in the heart of Pyongyang on the west bank of the Taedong River, was completed within a few weeks in 1953. Only a handful of Japanese-era buildings had survived, and with Kim Il-sung asserting his desire for ‘a great garden of Juche architecture’ – referring to the national ideology of self-reliance – the city grew in several theatrical phases of reconstruction.
The first of these commenced in 1954 with the Korean Art Gallery and Korean Central Historical Museum on the river side of Kim Il-sung Square, focused on new housing, and culminated in 1960 with the Pyongyang Grand Theatre, as the city’s street pattern was remodelled. The second saw apartment buildings grow ever taller, and the construction of the Pyongyang Metro, completed in 1973. The third came with the extensive development of the Mansu Hill area, with its complex of monuments to socialism and the supreme leader. And the fourth meant the shaping of Changgwang Street in 1980, and the rebuilding in 1984 of the Mansudae Assembly Hall, the seat of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s unicameral legislature.
During this fourth phase of reconstruction, 1982 served as a celebration of Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday. On the hill of Moranbong in 1982, the Arch of Triumph was erected, based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but bigger: the second tallest triumphal arch in the world, standing 60 metres high and 50 metres wide. The Arch of Triumph fronts Kim Il-sung stadium, which was renovated in the same year. 1982 also saw the completion of the Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang’s central library on Kim Il-sung Square, and directly across the river, on the east bank of the Taedong, the construction of Juche Tower. Kaeson Youth Park opened on Moranbong in 1984, an amusement park featuring a Ferris wheel, carousel, and fun house.
In 1989, work on the Rungnado 1st of May Stadium was completed as North Korea hosted the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. With a capacity of 150,000, it remains the largest stadium in the world. But during the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea suffered economic crisis and widespread famine. Kim Jong-il replaced his father, who died in 1994, and the following year saw the unveiling of the Monument to Party Founding, 50 metres high, with its symbolism of hammer, sickle, and calligraphy brush. But the grand-scale architectural projects mostly ceased.
A modernisation programme initiated in the early 2000s finally began to bear fruit towards the end of the decade. Moranbong Theatre was renovated in 2006. Kim Jong-il initiated the Changjon Street project before his death at the end of 2011, and the 18-tower complex was completed in 2014 under his son and successor, Kim Jong-un. Its structures rise as high as 47 stories, in mixed-used luxury apartments with restaurants, salons, and department stores stretched across the ground and lower floors.
As the capital witnessed a return to the ‘Pyongyang speed’ of construction of the 1960s and 1970s – with Kim Jong-un vowing an end to the architectural ‘era of belt-tightening’ – on the Rungna Islet the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground was opened in 2012, an amusement park with a dolphinarium, rollercoasters, mini-golf course, swimming pool, and 4D cinema. Munsu Water Park in the city’s east opened in 2013. Pyongyang Sunan International Airport was rebuilt, with an all-new Terminal 1 opening in July 2011, and serving as an interim international terminal until the reopening of Terminal 2 a few months ago, at the start of July 2015. Old Soviet interiors have been refurbished, and attention has turned to the city’s green and recreational spaces.
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So Pyongyang stands today, the product of these determined architectural drives over the decades since 1953. The city still shows the decisive influence of Soviet social realism and its streamlined classical building forms, and remains defined by the grid pattern and wide boulevards which the Soviets strove to implement. But it upholds too a more traditionally Korean and wider Asian aesthetic, in its inclination towards figurative elements, and in its predominant colour palette of muted reds, and pastel greens and blues. And since the late 1980s, architecture in Pyongyang has turned increasingly modern, with new structures wrought in metal and glass.
Earlier this year, from 14 March to 7 June, Huis Marseille in Amsterdam hosted an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Eddo Hartmann entitled Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea. Hartmann visited the North Korean capital in April 2014, in collaboration with Koryo Studio, the art division of the Koryo Group travel company established by Nicholas Bonner in 1993.
Art is strictly regulated in North Korea: all artists are required to join the national artists’ union, and the production of art is dominated by Mansudae Art Studio, a facility comprising 700 artists and 4,000 staff just north of Pyongyang. Most art is undertaken in the social realist style and evaluated for the extent to which it upholds the revolution. Revolutionary scenes are popular, as are landscapes. Largely eschewing painting in oil or watercolour, North Korean art is characterised by works in ink, linocuts, sculptures, and public mosaics. While artists can struggle to showcase their works abroad, in recent years there have been photography and fine art exhibitions in London.
Koryo Studio declares itself the first Western studio to exhibit and sell works by North Korean artists. With a gallery of its own in Beijing, it has helped to present North Korean artists at the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, and at the Venice Biennale. Rather than buying works directly from Mansudae Art Studio, Koryo Studio frequently commissions original projects from local artists seeking a new means of representation, and from international artists eager for an insight into the Democratic People’s Republic.
Eddo Hartmann photographed around Pyongyang using a tripod, accompanied by two North Korean guides, shooting digitally so that the authorities could review his takings. A standard practise in North Korea, he was prohibited from photographing military personnel or unfinished buildings. Stating that he plans a return visit and a sequel to Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, in an interview with Huis Marseille’s Anna Kruyswijk, Hartmann said of Pyongyang and his process:
‘EH: A certain kind of architecture makes it hard to disengage from society, and that’s pretty impressive […] The city is not neutral; it’s ever-present, and its spaces determine how the people in those places are affected – and vice versa, they also determine what people do with the city as a place.
AK: Personally, I experience the images in this photographic project as a kind of extreme concentration; I see the meticulous organization of pin-sharp details. This degree of rigid attention to detail puts me in mind of ‘power dressing’, and this quote by a military General: “No wrinkles or sewing issues. If you don’t pay attention to appearance, that shows you don’t pay attention to detail, and you’re going to get people killed.” The precision with which details are depicted in these photographs seem to be a promise that this detail will also be seen in life. Would you agree?
EH: I think you’ve put it very well indeed. In some of these pictures one might say that simplicity comes close to dullness – they show no dramatic situations, just empty streets or rooms. But I devote a huge amount of time to working this way. I construct each photograph very carefully. My photos use this ‘over-concentration’, and I hope other people see this too. I believe that if you can see it, you can feel it. In the society I’m photographing, this precision plays a very important role: that super-cleanliness, rigidity, and level of maintenance – it’s so extreme. The moment you register it you make it tangible. If I’m busy taking photographs, and designing my ‘slice’ of reality, all these details catch my eye. I can go there, and bring back a piece of that time, to look at for a much longer time. There are precious few places in the world where the vacuum of a ‘prescribed life’ are so clearly articulated in architecture. That vacuum is what you feel in North Korea, and documenting it is what these photographs are about.’
Hartmann’s photographs of Pyongyang gaze on the urban landscape as architectural ideal, public places emptied of people. In an online review for Time, entitled ‘See the Monumental Extravagance of North Korea’s Architecture’, Richard Conway wrote:
‘The resulting Pyongyang is expansive and largely empty. Its walls are clean, its subway platforms sparkle and in its lobbies, flowers bloom. This is art photography, though, not documentary photography. Unlike David Guttenfelder’s work, we aren’t getting snapshots of everyday life, but instead are being presented with a considered, slow-burning meditation – one fascinated with public space.
There is a theatricality in Hartmann’s stillness too: a woman appears to hide behind a foyer pillar, two speakers look poised to broadcast a state-approved announcement. And yet the photographer doesn’t seem to want us to slam what we are seeing, nor to praise it. Instead, he calls attention to the global fascination with a country, and a city, that remains largely a mystery.’
Within the past month, Hartmann’s Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea has been on display in the North Korean capital, alongside the series 3DPRK by the Beijing-based Slovenian photographer Matjaž Tančič. Like Hartmann, Tančič collaborated for his project with Koryo Studio, who put on the exhibition of 35 large-scale photographs in Pyongyang’s Chollima House of Culture between 24 September and 4 October.
As selected works from the archives of the two photographers were also shown, Koryo Studio presented this as the first ever instance of art photographs from the West going on public display in North Korea. The exhibition was free to enter for Pyongyang residents.
Matjaž Tančič’s 3D images in 3DPRK also portray North Korea’s public settings and architecture: the Grand People’s Study House, museums, classrooms, train stations, and factories. But Tančič foregrounds the North Korean people, resolutely within their respective milieus. Of his series, he said:
‘Portrayals of North Korea tend to veer into extremes: either sensationalistic demonization on one side, or ungrounded idealization and staging on the other. Both portrayals erase the actual human beings who live there. Instead of this, I wanted to build a project focusing on the group that forms the core of every society – people. People of different ages, statuses and occupations that anyone, anywhere could identify with. It seemed simple, but it quickly became clear why there aren’t many similar projects around.’