Book Review: Inside North Korea

One might expect North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, to be a monotonous grey world. The reality is far from what we might imagine. I found that out as a architectural graduate student at the University of Toronto, where I researched the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea. As a Korean-Canadian, ever since I moved to Canada from South Korea at the age of 15, I’ve been frequently asked about North Korea. For most of the world, the country remains largely inscrutable, unknowable, invisible.

Inside North Korea
A view from the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea, looking northeast over symmetrically planned tower blocks. Showcase buildings include stepped ziggurats and curved serpentine blocks.

Countering this paucity of information, journalist Oliver Wainwright takes us on an extraordinary journey in his newly published book Inside North Korea. His introductory text and approximately 300 photographs with descriptive captions offer, in his words, “a glimpse behind the closed doors of the Hermit Kingdom,” into a pastel-coloured cityscape that elicits “the surreal feeling of walking into a Wes Anderson movie or a life-sized Polly Pocket toy.” The broad range of high-res, full-sized photos in Inside North Korea offer an intriguing opportunity to experience the atmosphere of dazzling colour palettes. “The architecture continues the retro-futuristic style from previous years, with heavily sculpted concrete towers clad in gleaming white tiles with brightly coloured accents of minty green and orange,” Wainwright writes.

The book is based on the author’s visit to Pyongyang in 2015, and observes this secretive country from an informed architectural perspective. Wainwright’s photographs powerfully reveal the current state and atmosphere of the city at multiple scales, from urban district to interior space.

Inside North Korea
The metal-vaulted May Day Stadium, completed in 1989 and renovated in 2015, is designed to resemble a magnolia flower in bloom. The curved red roofs of the Central Youth Hall are seen in the foreground

Colour is one of the most dominant components of Pyongyang—an architectural aesthetic that Kim Jong Un has aggressively promoted in recent years. The Korean leader’s uncompromising manifesto promised “to raise a hot wind of construction across all the provinces, cities and counties” and “to remodel them in a beautiful fashion as suited to their characteristic features,” aiming to turn the country into a “socialist fairyland.” As Wainwright describes, the result is “a rolling field of tower blocks painted in terracotta and yellow ochre, turquoise and baby blue, punctuated by the novel silhouettes of landmark buildings designed with a distinctly sci-fi air.”

Pyongyang was largely destroyed by bombing during the Korean War in the early 1950s. This tragedy turned into an opportunity for the country’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, to rebuild it as a new ideal socialist city. Despite an official policy of “Juche Ideology,” which stipulates that there should be no external influence on any aspect of life in postwar North Korea, the city plan was shaped by Moscow-trained architect Kim Jong Hui and demonstrates classic Soviet planning principles.

In the plan, as Wainwright writes, “Imposing squares are linked by vast axial boulevards, setting up long vistas that terminate in monumental structures.” Monuments honouring the Kim dynasty leaders are deliberately spaced along the city plan’s central axis. The layout suggests the omnipresence of the leaders—a spatial analog to the country’s uniform political ideology. “The importance of the leaders in the formation of the city, from the scale of the room to the street, is hard to overstate,” Wainwright writes. Not only is the concept of space in Pyongyang controlled by the Kim leaders, but even the deadlines of the country’s major construction projects fall on their birthdays.

Inside North Korea
The 600-room
Grand People’s Study House was planned in the mid-1970s and completed in 1982 as a city centrepiece with the capacity to store 30 million books.

Wainwright’s travel was carefully controlled by a tour guide, and thus, it seems appropriate that he describes the city as theatrical: “Walking the streets of Pyongyang feels like moving through a series of stage sets taken from one of the country’s socialist-realist operas.” But there is a severed relationship between the façades that proudly showcase selected aspects of the city and the reality behind them.

Inside North Korea ultimately reveals the irreconcilable divide between the life of North Korean citizens and the artificial built environment that they appear to inhabit. At the end of Wainwright’s journey, he glimpses the dark side of the pastel-coloured city: a place of abandoned factories, collapsing apartment towers, and ragged children.

With its spatial approach to describing this enigmatic country, Inside North Korea serves as a powerful archival record and expands the discussion of Pyongyang’s past, present and future. This book provides a window into the architectural aspirations of this veiled world, allowing readers to question what may emerge in the years to come.

YouBeen Kim received her Master of Architecture from the University of Toronto. She is a founder and a principal designer at FREESPACE studio in Seoul and New York, a project architect at COREARCHISM Architects and an adjunct professor at Hanyang University and KyungHee University, both in Seoul.

Inside North Korea, by Oliver Wainrwright, Taschen Books, 2018.