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Significance of Urban Change in N. Korea in Kim Jong-un era

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2024-01-03

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ Getty Images Bank
In 2013, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a rather unusual lecture session for construction workers. 

Let’s usher in a great era of prosperity in construction by thoroughly implementing the party’s self-reliant ideology in architecture! This is the combative slogan that workers in the construction sector must embrace today. 

In his New Year’s speech the following year, the North Korean leader cited the development of the construction industry as one of the three major tasks for the nation’s economy. 

Construction is an important frontline that lays the groundwork for a strong and prosperous nation and provides a foundation for the people’s happiness. We should construct many world-class buildings that represent the military-first era and contribute to improving the people’s living conditions. 

Experts say that North Korean cities have undergone many changes since Kim Jong-un took power. Today, we’ll examine the significance of urban change in North Korea in the current Kim Jong-un era with Park So-hye, who holds a doctorate degree in North Korean studies. 

At the eighth congress of the ruling Workers’ Party in 2021, North Korea announced its plan to build 50-thousand homes. The project is now in progress. 

Songhwa Street, in particular, was completed in April 2022 and has now become one of the landmarks representing Pyongyang. North Korean media tout the new street as an achievement of the top leader, describing it as “the first street symbolizing a new era” and “the monument of loving care for the people in the Kim Jong-un era.” 

In the early period of his rule, leader Kim Jong-un gathered construction workers and issued a guideline in the form of a letter. Ten years later, he announced another guideline for workers in the same sector. In the two guidelines, the leader urged the country to promote the construction industry in order to achieve the state goal of building a strong and civilized nation. 

In his early years in office, Kim would mention buildings commemorating the country’s leaders, such as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, as well as structures like the Victorious War Museum. But later, he made remarks about new streets in Pyongyang, a water park, a ski resort, large greenhouses and farms, with the focus shifting to economic revival through an improvement in people’s livelihoods and self-reliance. In doing so, he reminded the people that North Korea is aiming to become a strong, civilized socialist country and an economic powerhouse. 

North Korean cities were planned and built in accordance with socialist principles. Capitalistic countries tend to form their city landscape in consideration of capital gains, while socialist cities tend to create their urban landscape in line with national plans. Therefore, the way a socialist city develops is a vivid manifestation of the state’s governing strategy. 

Dr. Park cites science, future and environment as the keywords that explain North Korea’s city construction in the Kim Jong-un era. 

First, the names of new streets and apartments show how highly North Korea values science. A residential street that was completed in 2013 was named “Unha Scientists Street.” Later, North Korea built “apartments for educators and scientists of Kim Il-sung University” and “apartment houses for educators of Kim Chaek University of Technology.” More housing units for scientists and educators were constructed in new streets, including Wisong Scientists Residential District in the Unjong Science Area and Mirae Scientists Street. 

In 2022, North Korea completed luxurious, terraced apartments along the Pothong River in Pyongyang. Leader Kim Jong-un is known to have put special efforts into this housing project. He said he would give the apartments, as gifts, to working people who devoted themselves to the state, including scientists. 

Officially, North Korean homes are not traded by individuals but are assigned by the state. The order of housing allocation is specified in North Korea’s Housing Act. Under the law, homes are preferentially provided to revolutionary fighters, war heroes, scientists, technical experts, people who did distinguished service and labor innovators. That is, the state provides preferential treatment to those people, who enjoy the privilege of living in the best, newly built homes in Pyongyang. 

Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has constructed science-related buildings that merit attention. 

In January 2016, a ceremony was held to commemorate the completion of the Sci-Tech Complex on Ssuk Island in the Taedong River in Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong-un in attendance. 

In 2016, North Korea highlighted “science and technology” as a vision for the future at the seventh congress of the Workers’ Party, the first such congress in 36 years. 

Analysts say structures that have been built under Kim Jong-un’s rule show the country’s emphasis on science and technology. 

North Korea has set its national goal of building a science and technology powerhouse and a strong knowledge economy. To achieve the goal, it stresses the need to make a breakthrough in the development of science and technology. 

North Korea believes that it is necessary to foster talented people internally for its own survival, as the country is poor in resources and it is difficult to enlist international cooperation for now due to sanctions on the North. Stressing the importance of science and technology is also in line with global trends. North Korea has even enacted a law on science and technology. The country said it would make an all-out effort to nurture scientists and engineers so they can play a leading role in developing the economy and improving the people’s lives. 

The Korean word “mirae,” which means “future,” is often used in the names of North Korean institutions and residential complexes. For example, Mirae Scientists Street and Ryomyong Street were built in 2015 and 2017, respectively. “Ryomyong” means “daybreak,” indicating that a new era is dawning. Also, “Miraewon” is the name of electronic libraries that spread all over the country.  

“Mirae” or “future” also means the next generation or the new generation. Since his early days in office, Kim Jong-un has put emphasis on the future generation, as seen in his visit to a local kindergarten and the construction of the Pyongyang Orphanage and the Pyongyang Baby Home. 

In one of the projects that Kim worked on from the early years of his rule, he instructed officials to check the conditions of schoolchildren’s palaces in cities and provinces nationwide and renovate their facilities, if necessary. In other words, the leader paid attention to the education and welfare of the new generation. Also, he has repeatedly stressed the importance of Kang Pan-sok Revolutionary School, calling it a place to educate major talent for the future. All these moves are aimed at cultivating the future generation of a strong and prosperous nation under the national goal of building a powerful country. 

Apart from constructing facilities for children and students, the North Korean leader has actually sent many young people to construction sites. He visited the construction site of the Mt. Baekdu Hero Youth Power Station and mentioned phrases such as “a strong youth nation” and “the myth of heroic youth.” He created a mythical episode about young people achieving a seemingly impossible goal of building an embankment. 

It is also worth noting new slogans that appeared in construction sites after Kim Jong-un came to power. It took only eight months to build a ski resort and hotel in Masikryong that is 768 meters above sea level. During the period, the leader visited the construction site as many as five times to urge the workers to complete the resort quickly. The Masikryong Ski Resort is touted as one of the greatest achievements of his era. At the construction site, a new slogan called “Masikryong speed” was born. 

Following on the heels of “Masikryong speed,” another new slogan “Joseon speed” appeared. In the North, “Joseon” refers to Korea. 

North Korean authorities extensively advertised that it took just two months to complete a fishery station that includes accommodations, a lounge and a breakwater, all thanks to the “Joseon speed.” A fishery station is a production unit of the country’s fishery industry. In fact, North Korea stresses “speed battles” in many construction sites. A speed battle refers to North Korea’s productivity campaign aimed at mobilizing labor to produce results in important projects in a short period of time. 

North Korea uses slogans that contain the word “speed” for urgent projects. The slogans suggest that the country must speed up, or quickly bring about the future that it envisions as its goal. The North seeks to produce a dramatic effect by drastically reducing the time needed for spatial transformation in urban construction. 

North Korea often uses the phrase “move up the date.” A North Korean article titled “Kim Jong-un’s Revolution Time” describes speed battles as an amazing reality, where everything is transformed quickly, with ten years shortened to one year, today being different from yesterday and the evening being different from the morning. The article says that North Korea will be able to advance the timetable for a strong and prosperous nation even further through speed battles. Apparently, speedy actions or shortening the time is regarded as the leader’s governing strategy. 

Another keyword in urban construction in the Kim Jong-un era is “environment,” which means the aesthetics of city construction valued by this era. “Environment” includes “night views” that reveal the scenery even in the dark. 

North Korean media, in a series, have introduced the night view of Ryomyong Street that the Kim Jong-un regime constructed based on a speed battle. The media also aired a ten-minute-long song in a series to pay tribute to the leader’s virtuous deeds. 

In city construction, North Korea stresses the environment. The Pyongyang City Management Act mandates the creation of night views in Pyongyang. One of the country’s ruling strategies is to create night scenes of Pyongyang in an enchanting and dazzling manner so they can befit the capital of a strong nation. Since 2017, North Korea has held Lunar New Year celebration performances at night to draw attention to the splendid night view. Recently, the North has held a military parade, which is designed to demonstrate defense capabilities, also at night. The purpose is to show off the splendor of the night views, of course. But the bright lights at night are also intended to symbolize the country’s future or leader, and the intense red lights could be seen as a symbol of a nuclear power. 

North Korea once became the subject of ridicule after a satellite photo of the entire world showed the country in dark at night. For North Korea, another purpose of creating a beautiful nightscape is to show to the outside world that it is not experiencing a shortage of electricity. 

In North Korea’s urban construction, the environment also means eco-friendliness. 

When introducing Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang, local media say that the street actively uses solar power and insulation technology to secure energy for high-rise buildings. 

From his initial years in office, leader Kim Jong-un has stressed eco-friendly “green architecture” that saves resources and helps improve people’s health and the global environment. 

I guess North Korea emphasizes green architecture because the difficulty in energy imports, triggered by international sanctions, raised the need for energy-saving architecture. On top of that, the North also seeks to address climate change, which has become a global issue, in a strategic move to create its image as a normal state. Also, it is the eco-friendly policy that visualizes a civilized power that North Korea is promoting as its national goal. The country’s construction policies focus on forest restoration and green environment, with an emphasis placed on recycling and creating more parks, forests and gardens. North Korea has adopted a law on landscaping with the purpose of turning the country into a beautiful and civilized socialist fairyland.

Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, North Korea has built structures that “put the people first” and a large number of supertall apartment buildings, changing Pyongyang’s skyline. The urban change like this seems to serve as a barometer of the North Korean authorities’ governing strategy. 

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