RtW Cities: Pyongyang

Preliminary readings: If you haven't yet, check out my previous blog post first. This is just about Pyongyang as a city, and all the 'OMG North Korea' side of things should be covered by following that link. This post will still be here when you get back. Done? Cool, to continue...


The next round-the-world cities family of posts features Pyongyang (평양), the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, known by many as North Korea). I would have never guessed in 2010 that I'd be returning to the Korean peninsula so soon (read the Seoul post from the last trip), and especially not on the northern side of the border, but an opportunity came up to visit for both the mass games and victory day, so it would have seemed sillier not to go!

First and foremost, Pyongyang is a city of two halves - vast amounts of concrete housing estates for the majority of the population, interspersed with the more well maintained monuments, statues, museums, galleries, ... and boy are there a lot of those. In so many other cities, I'd visit and see the ancient buildings (castles, palaces, cathedrals, ...) and wonder why noone erects anything like that any more. In Pyongyang, it looks like I've found the place that does! It turns out, when mixing a monarchy-like communist variant with low labor cost, high population (2.5M) and strong drive to raise the spirits of the populace, you end up with lots of cool stuff to look at, all kept immaculately clean and organized. It may have just been because of the contrast with much of the city's older buildings, but as a tourist there's certainly a lot to see. For me, the Juche tower - a 170m granite tower with illuminated flame at the top, pictured right - plus the Worker's Party monument and Arch of Triumph were the top three, but really there'll all worth seeing (see here for a good list), and not something that I'm used to poking up randomly in the middle of cities. Ooh, and having a captured US Navy intelligence ship that you can walk around on docked in the middle of the city definitely fits the 'unexpected' category.

Because of that, visiting as a tourist was great, but I'm less sure about what it'd be like to live there (political system aside). Certainly, the lack of traffic is a plus (we got stuck at a red light only a few times, most intersections have people to guide you) and the public transport seemed ok, just extremely variable in age in particular, a number of busses seemed on the brink of collapsing, and quite crowded. They do have a subway though (an essential factor in large city growth, and good to build early) plus the lack of advertising was enjoyable, and surprisingly it was one of the safest feeling places I've visited - probably because I was so obviously a tourist. There were plenty of parks, sporting grounds and misc outdoor hangout areas, but I think the state of housing would get to me. For somewhere I return home to each night, I'd need it in excellent condition, and the electricity / water supplies didn't seem quite reliable or pervasive enough (and no internet, of course!). That said, there were a number of 'nicer' areas, said to be given to good athletes, artists, musicians, ... plus some more modern redevelopments (the hotel on the left of the picture really stands out, but also a recently build run of skyscrapers) so if it's decided that housing infrastructure is important, hopefully those parts of the city will look better soon too.

So in general, I'm glad to see that some cities are still building these sorts of things - I don't know if it's the lack of capitalistic projects, but it's definitely a change to see a city that builds impressive things before they need them, and at huge scale, rather than constantly incrementally improving things only years after they're needed. While there's obviously a number of areas which could do with improvement, there are others which are also themselves quite impressive compared to other cities (for example - the library, or Grand People's Study House, is the most impressive library I've been to) and so while I won't be moving there any time soon, it'll be interesting to see how it develops as a city, and definitely worth the trip!

If anyone's interested, I travelled through Young Pioneer Tours' Victory Day tour, and as always, an album of photos from the trip are available online. Next up, Beijing from the trip home.

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