Insight: The changing face of Pyongyang

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Pyongyang, 평양직할시, is a directly governed and capital city of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Pyongyang is the centrepiece of any trip into the country and the political heart of the DPRK. Due to the prominence and importance of the city, for many casual observers, this city is North Korea. For a significant part of the early 21st century, when tours into the hermetic state began to become commonplace, foreign tourists were restricted primarily to the capital and only a few sites outside leading to speculation that this city was not representative of the rest of the country. At the time this was true; other major cities such as Wonsan and Chongjin had not seen the same level of development as the capital city however, in recent years the new political doctrine introduced by Marshall Kim Jong Un has seen significant improvements in infrastructure and living standards in many of the major cities. Pyongyang however, remains the heart of the country with the best monuments and most famous landmarks being located within the city limits and over the last few years the government of the DPRK has devoted significant time and money into giving Pyongyang what a recent publication from the country referred to as a 'facelift'. In many areas, the city is unrecognisable when compared to itself at the turn of the century. A socialist city for the 21st century.

The May Day Stadium on Rungra-do, lit up at night in Pyongyang

The ascension of Marshall Kim Jong Un to the supreme leadership saw the implementation of the first economically focussed political doctrine in decades. His father, General Kim Jong Il, was renowned for his 'Songun' military first political strategy which saw the government focus on developing the Korean People's Army above all else. The premiership of General Kim Jong Il saw significant portions of the national GDP devoted to the military through the National Defence Commission of which he was chairman. One of the most significant constitutional acts of Kim Jong Un's tenure so far was the replacement of the NDC with a new, all-encompassing political entity - The State Affairs Commission. The creation of the SAC foreshadowed a national refocus on both economic and military development simultaneously. Pyongyang, as the showcase capital, has seen some of the most significant investment between 2012 and the present day.


Modern high-rise projects

The first modern-style building project to grace the Pyongyang skyline actually begun during General Kim Jong Il's leadership though were finished in 2012, less than a year into Marshall Kim Jong Un's premiership. This complex in central Pyongyang, very near Kim Il Sung Square, became known as Changjon street and were the first buildings not to conform to the stalinist concrete cuboidal architecture which spread across the communist world since the 1950s. These new buildings were large white high-rise apartment blocks containing restaurants and shops; they were the precursor to a period of major renovation in the DPRK at large and in Pyongyang in particular.


Changjon street during the day

Changjon street lit up at night

The second eye-catching prestige project to come to Pyongyang was the Mirae Scientists street which was constructed on the banks of the Taedong river. The development consists of very modern looking apartment blocks built to house scientists and science and technology students in the city. Much prestige was placed on these members of society since they were responsible for the nuclear weapons development and missile technology programs seen as one of the nations great achievements. Simultaneously, the Pyongyang Sci-Tech centre was constructed on an island in the Taedong river very close to Mirae street. These buildings really cemented the unique future-modern architectural style of 21st century Pyongyang and have become a the pride of Pyongyang's skyline featuring in the background of KCTV reports and many official publications.

The Mirae Scientists Street with the Sci-tech centre in the foreground

In March 2016 Marshall Kim Jong Un put forward plans to develop another suburb of Pyongyang in a way similar to that of Mirae. Ryomyong new town was torn down and rebuilt in only 1 year from start to finish. Located next to Kim Il Sung University, the most prestigious university in the country. Formally opened in 2017 to great fanfare the 'new town' boasts one of the largest buildings in the country in the form of the Ryomyong condominium. Unlike Mirae scientists street, there didn't seem to be any specific tenants in mind however it did feature often in news reports during it's construction and acts as a symbolic construction project due to its development speed and modern design.

Ryomyong street in the evening

Alongside these new constructions, Pyongyang as a whole underwent a stylistic rejuvenation in the 21st century with many of the concrete, soviet-style buildings being painted in various pastel colours giving the older, less developed parts of the city a new coat of paint, literally. This transformed the skyline and made the city feel more alive. This huge change is hugely notable when comparing older images of the city to more recent ones.

Pastel coloured buildings clustered around the Monument to Party Founding

Parks & Infrastructure

A notable focus of Marshall Kim Jong Un's development plan for Pyongyang was infrastructure development in the city and the creation of new social venues for the citizens of the city.


The Rungra people's pleasure ground was opened in 2012 by Marshall Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju. In scenes that would not have been imaginable a year previously under the Kim Jong Il administration, the Marshall tried out some of the thrill rides in the amusement park, video of which was then broadcast on KCTV. In the close vicinity of the Rungrado park, the Munsu water park opened the following year. Featuring a variety of indoor and outdoor pools with numerous slides and all the modern trappings expected of a water park. The creation of such parks likely served as a demonstration of economic success in the country. 'Socialist-economic development' has been the buzzword of Kim Jong Un's administration and new lavish constructions such as these recreational areas convey a sense of success to foreign visitors who are welcome to visit the Munsu and Rungra parks.

Marshall Kim Jong Un at the Rungra park

Munsu Water Park

Infrastructure development has also been a major area of investment with new modern-style metro trains coming into service since 2012. Whilst still running alongside the older more classic communist-style subway cars the modern metro vehicles are examples of an initiative to build up Pyongyang's infrastructure. Other areas of development include new modern trolleybuses entering service around the city, new tram cars for the city's public tram network and a totally redesigned national airport. Sunan Int'l airport serves not only as the main airport for the city, but for the country. The airport saw a total demolition and reconstruction in the early years of Marshall Kim Jong Un's leadership and the new terminal building is architecturally much more similar to the international standard than the previous building. Many of these prestige building projects are likely symbols of economic success rather than necessities for the city.

Modern Pyongyang Tram

New metro train alongside an older version

Conclusion

In conclusion, when comparing Pyongyang today with the Pyongyang of the late 20th/early 21st century it is clear how much has changed. The new focus on economic development has allowed for huge new futuristic style skyscrapers around the city and new buildings around the city building to amaze foreign onlookers and convey a sense of success. The city continues to evolve with new modern buildings constantly replacing older soviet-style buildings and this construction boom has spread to other cities. Wonsan in particular is seeing special development as the government attempts to create a tourism hotspot in the country. For now all we can say is that, for whatever reason, the government of the DPRK has certainly succeeded in giving Pyongyang a "facelift".


Pyongyang at night with the Ryugyong hotel and Ryomyong Condominium visible

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