Kim Il-sung Square in N. Korea
During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, many South Korean citizens gathered at Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul, despite the freezing weather early in the morning, to root for their national football team.
The square is a public plaza in front of Gwanghwamun, the main gate of Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul. During the Joseon Dynasty, the square served as the main street where key government offices were located. At present, there is a 212-meter-long “Historical Waterway” as well as “Hangeul Fountain” that shows the principle of inventing the Korean alphabet of Hangeul. Historical remains excavated during the construction of the square are well preserved. They include the gate site of the Office of the Inspector General from the dynasty. There are various places for relaxation, alongside green space, to attract citizens. An open-air reading space called “Gwanghwamun Book Yard” is also scheduled to open to allow visitors to read books comfortably at outdoor venues around the square against the background of Gyeongbok Palace and Mt. Inwang.
While South Korea has Gwanghwamun Square, North Korea has its own famous plaza in the heart of its capital. Today, we’ll learn about Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang from Professor Yim Dong-woo from the Department of Urban Engineering at Hongik University.
A public square refers to an open area where many people who hold the same view can meet or gather. In this sense, a public square can be more meaningful for socialist states.
In socialist states, enlightenment, education and propaganda comprise basic principles that form society. That’s why a public square, as a propaganda venue where people gather round, was a very important element in building a socialist city. It is more than just a place for holding events.
Given the great significance of a public square in socialist countries, the creation of squares was a highly important task from the early years of the North Korean regime. After Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, North Korea reportedly transformed the front space of a Pyongyang office building in the form of a public plaza. In the process of rebuilding the country after the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea pushed for the construction of Kim Il-sung Square in earnest.
During the colonial period, there was no square in Pyongyang. In the post-war recovery process, North Korea’s city design was heavily influenced by East Europe and the Soviet Union. As a result, the North began to embrace the concept of a public plaza. Public squares were included in a reconstruction master plan that was drawn up in the 1950s by a North Korean architect named Kim Jong-hui(김정희), who studied in the Soviet Union. Pyongyang was completely destroyed during the war, and North Korea had to rebuild the capital from scratch. In the process, it needed some kind of benchmark, which turned out to be Kim Il-sung Square. Roads were built and buildings were restored around the square, signaling the start of reconstruction.
Kim Il-sung Square is one of symbolic structures representing North Korea, just like Red Square in Moscow and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. North Korea proudly says that Kim Il-sung Square decorates Pyongyang, the capital of revolution, in a more magnificent and splendid way and it fully reveals the dignity and splendor of juche-or self-reliant North Korea.
Located on the foot of Namsan Hill, the square was constructed in 1954. It consists of a rectangular-shaped main square paved with granite, a smaller square and a podium for leadership. Covering 75-thousand square meters, the square can accommodate about 100-thousand people.
At present, the square is in front of the Grand People’s Study House, looking towards the Juche Tower across the Taedong River. It is surrounded by government buildings, a history museum, an art gallery and the Pyongyang Department Store No.1. This layout was completed over a long period of time. A photo of downtown Pyongyang in 1961 shows nothing is found in the center of the square, except for a leadership podium.
When there were no social media or the Internet in the past, it was necessary to gather tens of thousands of people in one place to deliver a speech or spread philosophy. That’s what a public square was for. Pyongyang accepted socialist urban planning, in which the leadership podium was a very important part. The leader gave a speech on the podium and the citizens spread the leader’s message. It could be regarded as the process of social enlightenment.
Marking the 70th birthday of regime founder Kim Il-sung in 1982, the Juche Tower was built in Pyongyang to symbolize the greatness of the leader and his juche ideology. The 150-meter-high tower body made up of white granite blocks is topped with a 20-meter-high metal torch. Visitors can get to the observation deck just below the torch by elevator. The tower is indeed one of the city’s key landmarks.
The Juche Tower is situated on the other side of the Taedong River from Kim Il-sung Square. The location was marked in the master plan that was made in the 1950s. It seems the city was constructed over a span of decades, in accordance with the master plan. The Juche Tower was built in the 1980s as a symbolic structure to bolster the personality cult of the leader and raise public awareness of his juche ideology.
In the same year, 1982, the Grand People’s Study House was completed on Kim Il-sung Square. The national central library is a ten-story building featuring traditional roofs covered with green tiles. The completion of the library made the Kim Il-sung Square what it is today.
I wouldn’t say North Korea built the square in the center of Pyongyang. Rather, the construction of the city started from this square. Government agencies and cultural facilities were built around the square in the 1960s to enable the square to perform multiple functions. The completion of the Grand People’s Study House and the Juche Tower in the 1980s expanded the scope of the square to the opposite side of the Taedong River. In the process, the centrality of this square continued to grow. The Grand People’s Study House, in particular, is a magnificent structure. It serves as a wonderful backdrop for the square.
North Korea moved the “kilometer zero” to the site below the leadership podium at Kim Il-sung Square in 1996. That is, the square is the starting point for North Korea’s national road system. It is said that a stone monument indicating “Pyongyang Starting Point for National Roads” is also installed there.
Kim Il-sung Square is the place for holding major events, including New Year celebrations and military parades on various anniversaries.
At the square, North Koreans participate in large-scale events, including mass rallies to criticize the United States’ hostile policy toward the North and to pledge to implement the decision made at the party’s plenary meeting.
At the same square in 2017, North Korea held a ceremony of sending new tractors and cargo trucks to production sites.
The country holds a ball at the square on the birthday of former leader Kim Il-sung, known as the Day of the Sun, as well as Youth Day.
Major political and cultural events, like the ones commemorating the party congress and the regime foundation anniversary, memorial ceremonies for former leaders, celebratory parties, mass rallies and military parades take place at Kim Il-sung Square.
When hearing North Korea’s public plaza, many people might be reminded of Kim Il-sung Square only. But public squares have been formed in major cities in the country, other than Pyongyang, as a symbolic space.
The formation of a public square is very important in a socialist city, as I mentioned earlier. It is little wonder that squares are found in big and small cities in North Korea. A public square could be created where cultural facilities like a library or a theater are located. In other cases, a square could be formed where the statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have been set up. In the northeastern city of Hamhung(함흥), buildings are located around the public square. In the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, on the other hand, the largest square was formed in front of the Sinuiju Station. This is an old-style city design. New master plans for other regions such as Sonbong(선봉) and Chongjin(청진) also put great emphasis on public squares. Statues of former leaders have been erected at the squares recently.
Current leader Kim Jong-un seems to make good use of Kim Il-sung Square. On the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Workers’ Party on October 10, 2010, he inspected troops, standing alongside his father and former leader Kim Jong-il, on the leadership podium at the square. It was a political event designed to show, inside and outside the country, that Kim Jong-un would inherit power from his father. In 2012, Kim Jong-un gave his first verbal speech as the nation’s top leader, also at Kim Il-sung Square.
During a rare night-time military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the party foundation in 2020, Kim Jong-un said he was sorry for not being able to improve people’s lives and even wiped away his tears in the middle of his speech. The unusual public display of the top leader’s tears vividly showed the notable transformation of the so-called “highest dignity,” which refers to the leader.
In this way, Kim Il-sung Square is playing a highly symbolic role in North Korean politics.
The square is where national events take place and the leaders’ instructions have been delivered to the people. For that reason, North Korea will continue to pay keen attention to how this venue is used and how it is shown in the media. It has a great symbolic significance internally and outwardly. I imagine the place will undergo a change constantly, although it is uncertain how and when. If other socialist countries are any guide, commercial facilities have appeared around public squares, prompting many more people to come there. The government offices and cultural facilities currently located near Kim Il-sung Square may play different roles in the future.
Last September, North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper brought to light various events that have been held at Kim Il-sung Square over the last 70 years. Apparently, the purpose was to strengthen internal unity, while reviewing the history of the highly symbolic square. It remains to be seen what kind of political, social and cultural role the square will play down the road.