Decimated by bombs during the Korean War, the city of Pyongyang was completely rebuilt in 1952. Kim Il Sung, the first Supreme Leader of North Korea, imagined the capital as a grand stage set replete with majestic axial boulevards, anchored by Herculean monuments to the power structure.
Although some of the earlier designs used Soviet architecture as a departure point, the city easily embraced its own identity rooted in a combination of traditional Korean culture and design, and an unexpected taste for a science fiction.
Over the past six decades, Pyongyang has become the crown jewel of North Korea as a grandiose vision of independence, self-reliance, and national pride. Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, construction continues to expand in order to fulfil the promise of the third Supreme Leader: “Let us turn the whole country into a socialist fairyland.”
In July 2015, Guardian journalist and photographer Oliver Wainwright travelled to Pyongyang with Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company that has been giving foreign visitors a look inside North Korea since 1993. Over a period of eight days, Wainwright was taken on a whirlwind trip, visiting about ten sites a day that included everything from museums to arenas, hotels to monuments – everything except the homes of the people of Pyongyang.
The result is Inside North Korea (Taschen), a revealing trip into one of the most secretive nations on earth. Featuring about 200 photographs with detailed captions for history and context, the book offers an impressive look at the most lavish locales across Pyongyang. Here, Wainwright responds to the grandeur of a regime and the way it expresses the national “Juche” ideology of self-reliance, as was codified in Kim Jong-il’s 1991 treatise On Architecture.
“In the manifesto, Kim Jong-il talks about how the buildings were designed to look like a great crowd of people showing their devotion to the leader,” says Wainwright. “They have these very theatrical staged places all across the city that makes the individual feel very small indeed and the leader feel omnipresent. It’s probably one of the most choreographed cities I have been into in that sense.”
In Inside North Korea, Wainwright presents Pyongyang as the government wants the city to be seen, simultaneously embracing the spectacle and humanising the façade of the regime. “One of the main reasons I did the book was to encourage more people to go there, because I think the best way to get a better understanding of what is going on is to visit,” Wainwright explains.
“Part of the reason I was photographing the crazy coloured pastel rooms that look like Wes Anderson films is to show that side of the country, because what we get in Western media are images of parades, tanks, nuclear missiles, and endless grey apartment blocks – an understandably dystopian Soviet impression. I wanted to show a different side.”
Wainwright takes a perspective similar to what the citizens of Pyongyang experience every day, living in this fantastical landscape filled with candy-coloured apartment blocks, Jetsons-style landmarks, and dramatic vistas. “A lot of the new architecture has this bizarre, escapist, fantastical quality to it – which I personally think is quite a clever way of distracting people from life in this authoritarian regime,” he says.
“Kim Jong Un is building theme parks, ski resorts, water parks, and dressing up these skyscrapers to look like sci-fi monuments and I get a sense that people in Pyongyang are excited about these new buildings. Even though they might not have electricity 24 hours a day and outside the capital, it’s very poor, but the architecture is providing a distraction, almost like a tranquilliser, from everyday life.”
Inside North Korea is available now on Taschen.
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