Whenever a new house or apartment is built in North Korea, the nation’s propaganda media extensively promote it.
In a video showing Songhwa Street, which was completed in Pyongyang in 2022, a reporter inside a rising elevator of a building said that the dignity of North Korean citizens was raised to match the super-tall building.
The video mostly consists of the panoramic view of Songhwa Street and does not show other parts of the building. In fact, it is not easy to look inside North Korean homes. What kind of space do North Korean residents live in? Today, we’ll take a look at North Korea’s residential space shown in local movies and TV series with Dr. Park So-hye of North Korean studies.
North Korea produces movies and TV dramas under the principle of socialist realism that values an idealized representation of life, based on reality. Therefore, they depict everyday life relatively faithfully, although they may not reflect the reality just the way it is.
A TV series titled “Glow of the North” deals with the conflict between the characters over how to build a smelter in a local mine. In the drama that aired in 2017, a house looks more like space open to people within their community, rather than private space.
“Glow of the North” is set in a rural village in Jagang Province, a northern region in North Korea in the previous Kim Jong-il era. Rural houses at the time are characterized by low walls, low fences and gates without locks. The houses create a horizontal landscape, blending in nature. There are no doors in rural homes shown in the TV drama. Inside the home, space is divided by thresholds, not doors, and it is open for everyone. Furniture and appliances such as a desk, bookshelf, wardrobe and TV set are placed side by side. It is a communal or shared space rather than a private one.
Koreans traditionally sat on the floor in ondol rooms. North Korean regime founder Kim Il-sung emphasized the floor-heating system of ondol, not beds. His son Kim Jong-il also stressed the need to use the ondol system rather than fireplaces for heating. In contrast, high-rise apartments in the current Kim Jong-un era allow dwellers to sit on chairs, not on the floor.
Speaking more of the TV series “Glow of the North,” residents point out the problems in existing houses and decide to build new homes.
There are episodes that show people’s complaints about rural homes and their desire for new ones. For example, parents have to call off the marriage of their son against their will, just because the son’s house is small. A woman does not get her hair permed inside her home but goes out into the backyard because the house would soon be filled with the strong smell emanating from the perm solution. The residents come to the conclusion that they should rebuild rural houses in a modern way, under the slogan of “We’ll build chair-sitting style houses to meet the needs of the new era.”
While super-tall apartment buildings in the Kim Jong-un era allow dwellers to sit on chairs, old houses are still based on a sedentary lifestyle. In the TV drama “Our Neighbors,” residents in a newly built high-rise apartment are still used to sitting on the floor. For instance, a table and chairs are placed in the kitchen, but family members are never seen to sit on those chairs in the kitchen. They set up a low table in the living room and sit on the floor instead. This shows that they are still familiar with the traditional sedentary culture. Although North Korea pursues modernity, locals are still accustomed to their previous lifestyle.
In line with the change in the way of sitting in homes, spaces in a house begin to be divided for different purposes. A 2016 movie “The Story of Our Home” revolves around a girl who has just finished middle school and takes care of her neighbor’s orphaned siblings. The film is based on a real person named Jang Jong-hwa.
In the beginning, the background is a rural house in Kangson near Pyongyang during the Kim Jong-un era. Later, the main character receives the Model Youth Medal and moves to a new house provided by the state.
The film “The Story of Our Home” shows how the layout of a new house is different from that of a typical rural house. The new residential home has separate bedrooms including children’s rooms, a living room and a kitchen. The division of space indicates what North Korea pursues in new residential homes. Old houses were all about the community. But now, homes should be built in a modern way to meet the needs of the people. House designs that guarantee personal space have become important. Individual spaces are differentiated by doors. In modernized, standardized apartments, doors are installed in different spaces such as bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a porch, with furniture and other stuffs placed in each space.
As the residential space is divided, personal space is created. A separate kitchen and a study room, in particular, are worth noting. In old North Korean houses, the head of the household, such as the husband or the father, usually occupied the central space. The central space and surrounding spaces were decided in accordance with the ranking of the family members, reflecting an authoritarian, patriarchal culture. As the residential space was divided into different sections, however, a significant change occurred in the house.
In the TV drama “Glow of the North,” the kitchen is seen as a place for cooking and heating and a place where women do housework. The kitchen is not equal to other spaces, as it was built lower than other rooms. The husband comes near the kitchen to ask for water but he does not enter the kitchen. The wife in the kitchen fills a bowl with water and hands it over to him across the threshold. The bowl is usually used to contain rice or side dishes, but the wife pours water into the bowl because the purpose of the bowl is not clear.
In the drama “The Story of Our Home,” the girl washes rice, prepares food and squats down to put noodles in soup on the kitchen floor in her old house. But in the new house, the kitchen is seen as one of the many rooms. There, she uses a transparent cup, not a bowl, to drink water. That is, a new consumer item was born. It shows a capitalistic trait that diversifies products for different purposes, not a socialist trait that emphasizes the value in use. I’d say that a change in residential space has led to actual consumption.
In a TV drama “Our Neighbors” that aired on Korean Central Television in 2013, the main character is an elevator operator.
The main character’s family and neighbors live on the 10th floor of a high-rise apartment in Pyongyang, while other characters, on the 21st floor. This apartment building shows housing culture that has clearly changed from that of the previous generation.
In one of the scenes of “Our Neighbors,” the father is working in the kitchen, wearing an apron and rubber gloves. This is something unimaginable in the past. The kitchen was raised to the same level as the living room and bedrooms, resulting in equalization of space inside the home and making the kitchen accessible by men. Individual spaces are created, while the kitchen and the living room have turned into a common space shared by the entire family. A new residential culture has emerged to reflect the convenience and tastes of family members.
Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has built super-tall apartments as residential space for a specific class. The purpose is to publicize that the country is working to improve the people’s lives and to shape the modern landscape of Pyongyang. In the process, however, analysts say that the North unintentionally awakened the desire for consumption that is latent in the residents. That is, in line with the creation of new space that did not exist before, consumers brought in new furniture and products that fit into that space.
Now that a children’s room is created, a children’s bed and desk can be placed in the room. Children can have the entire room to themselves, playing with their favorite dolls or toys. This is something we take for granted. But in North Korea, that was not the case in the past. We can understand that consumption patterns may change, in accordance with a change in space. The separation of personal spaces also had the effect of making children stand out as individuals. In the North Korean TV series “Waiting for Father,” the decoration above the child’s bed features a Japanese character. Parents can spend money on children’s products like that because their house has a separate room for their child. In old North Korean houses, where even the sleeping space, not to mention a study room, was shared by the whole family, it was difficult to get children’s products. Such products can be purchased by those who can financially afford to get houses that have separate individual spaces.
With the construction of high-rise apartments in North Korea, the culture of moving to a new house has also changed. In the drama “Glow of the North,” for example, the residents in the mining village load the blue truck when moving out and carry stuffs like bundles and tables by hand one by one. Moving is a communal event that mobilizes all the village people.
Another drama “Waiting for Father” featuring a high-rise apartment in Pyongyang also shows a scene of a family moving out. But the family members have their own suitcases, put them in the car trunk and head to the airport.
Analysts say the creation of individual spaces in residential homes had a significant impact on daily life. In the drama “Our Neighbors,” parents have their son go up and down stairs, rather than use an elevator, to help him watch his weight. In one scene, a person mentions “restorative medicine” to take care of the family’s health.
In previous TV series, medicines were provided only to sick people. But in this TV drama, residents in an apartment in Pyongyang lose weight and take medicines and nutritional supplements, not just to treat disease but to improve their health.
As the residential space becomes more individualized, interior decoration has also changed. In the previous era, portraits of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il could easily be seen on the walls of houses. In the drama “Glow of the North,” a plaque saying “Family of General” is hung on the wall of the house. However, there are no such portraits or plaques in high-rise apartments shown in dramas like “Our Neighbors” and “Waiting for Father.” There are pictures of flowers or landscape paintings instead to create a bright image. The picture frame contains a family photo, not the leaders’ faces. This shows individual tastes that attach importance to a happy family. Also, an interior design featuring a world map indicates the Kim Jong-un era’s pursuit of globalization.
Houses shown in North Korean movies and TV series have changed from the “sit on the floor” style to the “sit on the chair” style, from communal space to individualized, personal space. We’ll have to wait and see how the new residential space will stimulate North Korean residents’ desire for consumption and how it will change their daily lives.