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Pyongyang, the City of Secrets

All photos were taken in April 2013 and are copyright to Cyrus Kirkpatrick, all rights reserved.

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The spirit of Pyongyang (“city in the flat-land”) has endured for thousands of years, and despite being continually shattered by warfare, it always springs from the ashes in some unique way. The form the city has taken in the last century is perhaps the most peculiar in its 5000 year history; it is now a city of forbidden sights – a showcase capitol of a socialist utopia that never quite achieved its promise. It is a city filled with lights, grandiose monuments, amazing breweries, high-quality restaurants, hard-working people, and dark secrets.

There is a lot written about the City of Secrets, as the forbidden nature of North Korea’s capitol captures the imagination of adventurers from across the world. Despite a lively population of around 2.5 million, the lives of the every-day citizens remain just out of sight. To understand Pyongyang, consider how in neighboring communist China, a tourist may wander the streets of any city; meet new friends and be invited into their homes. These are privileges that do not exist in Pyongyang. To this day, nobody knows what life is like in Pyongyang’s dimly lit condominiums and apartments.

Pyongyang has not always been a forbidden realm. Historically the ancient city was a hallmark of the Goryeo dynasty up until the Sino-Japanese war, when it was reduced to rubble in the late 19th century. The city was no stranger to apocalyptic tidings, and it bounced back through the help of reconstruction efforts by the Japanese occupiers.

1920s Pyongyang

After Pyongyang’s resurrection, the city attracted the attention of foreign missionaries, to the point that the city’s robust Christian population helped garner Pyongyang the nickname “The Jerusalem of Asia”. In fact, Billy Graham’s future wife attended school in the city in the 1920s, and it was a popular location for Christians from across the world to visit.

However, despite the religious migration, this era was also a dark time in Korea’s history. The Japanese committed countless human rights violations such as public executions, while also implementing a systematic process to “de-Korea-fy” the culture by eliminating the Korean language and assimilating the population into Japan. Countless Koreans were conscripted to the Japanese military, while their sons and daughters were raised without knowledge of their own society.

The Japanese empire’s ambitions did not end with occupied Chosun, as they desired to see the Circle of the Sun spread across the world. Their ill-fated allegiance with the Nazi party and war with the United States led to the eventual nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. As the infrastructure of their war-machine collapsed, it gave opportunity for Korean revolutionaries to take their country back. The Japanese surrender followed a long period of struggle throughout WWII, and the end result was the return of Pyongyang to the Korean people.

A problem arose as revolutionaries saw different visions for the new Korea. Syngman Rhee, a right-wing strongman, envisioned a capitalist based free-market system, while the Soviet Union and the sympathetic People’s Republic of China believed Korea was best suited as a strong socialist republic. A renowned left-wing activist and soldier named Kim il-Sung would be backed by the communist superpowers to help enact the socialist vision of the country.

This ideological difference led to the establishment of a divided Korea, with both the United States and the Soviet Union cooperating to cut out two ideological versions of the country, backed by Rhee to the south and Kim to the north. The experiment barely lasted five years before tensions became heated between the two Koreas, spurred on by frequent exchanges of fire as well as genocide that was committed by Rhee’s army against communist sympathizers in the south (such as the Bodo League Massacre in 1950).

It was not long before the skirmishes led to a full-scale invasion by the north, a conflict that soon involved not only the Korean armies but also the United States and her allies who became pitted against both Kim il-Sung and the new Chinese communists in a drawn-out ideological proxy war. The war would become one of the bloodiest in the history of the world, and it led to yet another utter destruction of Pyongyang through continual American aerial bombardment. The warring Koreas also continued genocidal practices throughout the three year conflict, with both Kim il-Sung and Syngman Rhee exterminating hundreds of thousands of their own people.

After an armistice agreement unofficially ended the war, it was up to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north to piece their civilization back together. Spurred on by a great amount of financial help by China and Russia, North Korea boomed within years, and Pyongyang once more arose from the ashes a pinnacle of communist achievement. Almost all of the historical buildings in the city were vaporized through American bombs, but within record speed new monuments, condominium housing, and traditional Korean style architecture were built over the ruins of old Pyongyang.

Two hours south of Pyongyang, however, the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel had turned into a heavily fortified reminder of the continuing Korean conflict. Pyongyang soon became the focal point of power in the new North Korean state, with residents and politicians alike considering the city to be the true capitol of Korea, with Syngman Rhee to the south a mere dictator who would eventually be usurped from Seoul.

Meanwhile, the south faced economic disparity. Rhee’s government would remain barely sustainable as he ruled autocratically, all the way until a military coupe forced him from power in 1960. However even after Rhee’s ouster the country continued to suffer problems, all the while North Korea remained not only more organized, but with a much more powerful military capable of easily swarming Seoul. The only thing that stood in the way were Cold War tensions and the threat of mutually assured destruction should an invasion lead to full-scale war between the Koreas, China, the United States, and all other Cold War players.

The socialist state would always be controlled by the People’s Committee which oversees the rank and file of the citizens, and Pyongyang was established as the ‘reward’ by the Committee for those laborers who worked the hardest and showed the most party loyalty. Those lucky residents awarded membership to the flat-land city would be given access to prosperous commodities like nice cars and a plenty of meals. Meanwhile, economic development saw a rapid expansion of other large cities like Hamhung to the east and Chonjin to the north, despite these cities having been previously decimated by American bombs.

Kim il-Sung ruled absolutely, having fashioned himself after the likes of Stalin and Mao. Although his iron-fisted rule did not interfere with the backing of countless other socialist states of the Eastern Bloc, assuring the country’s economic vitality and a long and prosperous era that would not be threatened for decades.

A Reversal of Fortune

The lines had been drawn in the Cold War, and Pyongyang with its magnificently constructed monuments heralding the Juche ideology represented an inspiration to communists around the world – and a clear danger to the United States and her allies. Although the country’s ties with the Soviet Union were sometimes shaky at best, Kim il-Sung’s state was nonetheless a powerful communist presence in an extremely important geographical area with Japan in close proximity, and capitalist South Korea duly managed by the North’s watchful eye. If North Korea were to lose power, it would mean a fatal weakness in the region for the Eastern Bloc, considering the presence of U.S. bases in South Korea, Guam and Japan.

Unfortunately for communist allies, the North’s position of power would slowly begin to deteriorate beginning in the 1970s. For the first time, South Korea had begun economically challenging the power of the north. New reforms under the direction of Park Chung-hee would bring Seoul to a level of power that started to rival neighboring Pyongyang. Heavily backed by western allies, Seoul gradually rose to prominence as an economic powerhouse, and the DPRK had a difficult time keeping up with South Korea’s free-market system and introduction of foreign brands.

This may have challenged the DPRK’s authority, but it did not threaten Kim il-Sung’s seat of power. It was, however, the changing of the times that initiated the DPRK’s descent into obscurity, secrecy and paranoia– namely, the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Almost immediately following thawed relations between the United States and Russia, plus the fall of the Berlin Wall, the DPRK was faced with dwindling socialist allies. Their primary ally became China, a country that had experienced rapid economic development due to a relaxation of Mao’s hardline communist policies. Kim il-Sung, however, had no intention on relaxing his traditionalist views and joining with the new ways of the 1990s.

Then, in 1994, Kim il-Sung died, and his son Kim Jong-il inherited the DPRK. His legacy is marked by many curious achievements, including the expansion of Juche ideological monuments in Pyongyang. The legacy of Kim Jong-il is extremely prevalent in Pyongyang, as much of the city’s skyline and magnificent architecture can be attributed to his rule, however his priorities have been greatly criticized as the 1990s was the most tragic period in the state’s history since the Korean war, as this was when famine ravaged the population, with cities like Hamhung reportedly experiencing a 10% population decline due to starvation. Everyone in North Korea today who was alive in the 1990s has been affected by this famine – whether through losing relatives, friends, parents or children. Many believe Kim Jong-il could have reallocated the GDP away from propaganda monuments and the massive defense budget to have potentially saved hundreds of thousands lives.

Modern Day Pyongyang

Kim Jong-il’s secretive rule helped Pyongyang to become the world’s most shadowy city. By around the year 2000 the world had completely changed, international relations had warmed between all former Cold War adversaries, and even China was bustling with Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-thrus and chain restaurants. Meanwhile, South Korea had become an economic powerhouse, and while their military remains physically smaller than the DPRK’s, the country experienced a huge technological boost and they became undeniably superior in terms of firepower.

These changes, amazingly, would affect neither Pyongyang nor the rest of the state. Rather than joining with the world’s developments; the DPRK under Kim Jong-il’s rule would instead bunker down and become the last vestige of the Cold War. They would attempt to reassert their authority through nuclear weapon development and to reassert a regional arms race. Meanwhile diplomatic relations further weakened after U.S. president George W. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech that named North Korea among three countries that posed the greatest threat to the U.S.

North Korea gradually became an international museum piece. The world turned a fascinated eye toward the DPRK as a culture perfectly preserved from a previous era. The system of the government remains almost exactly the same as when Kim il-Sung first came to power almost 70 years ago, with the only difference being vastly diminished economic abilities.

In the modern age the DPRK has few allies to speak of except the Chinese – a relationship that some are beginning to question the endurance of. Other smaller allies include Cuba and Iran, countries that are themselves also devastated by sanctions.

Despite the economic changes and the decline of the country’s golden age – Pyongyang still remains the same flagship city it was designed to be, The country’s social system has not changed since the bygone era, as residents must be given access to join the ‘Pyongyang Club’— membership that includes the luxurious treatment of 3 meals per day and suitable living conditions inside ‘modern’ housing and condominium projects. However, as a secret city, the actual living conditions of Pyongyang residents remain unknown, as literally no outsider has ever stepped foot inside a North Korean’s personal living space – with the exception of those who have been to state-sponsored ‘homestays’ that probably do not reflect North Korean lifestyles with total accuracy.

The city recently experienced an economic ‘boom’ after the inauguration of Kim Jong-Un, with brand-new skyscrapers that electrify the night-sky with neon-outlines. However, analysts question where the North is drawing their funds to afford these projects, and some believe the working-class laborers on the countryside are paying the price for Pyongyang’s opulence. Although the city may appear more prosperous than ever before, it likely comes with a heavy price.

Yet the opulent nature of the city is what makes the place ‘suitable’ for foreigners to experience without too much discomfort. Although during winter the museums and libraries suffer the cold chill of unheated marble floors and poor electricity, the hotels like the Yangakkdo and the Koryo remain fairly ‘lavish’ and suitable for hundreds of guests at a time – and generally experience enough working electricity to keep visitors accommodated.

Pyongyang actually makes an effort to rebrand itself as a ‘normal’ and prosperous community; they host foreign exchange students, inter-cultural relations through the Pyongyang Film Festival, and even outsourced work through select companies, such as an Egyptian telecom company that recently hooked up inter-Korean cell-phone access across the country. Yet, despite these efforts, foreigners living in Pyongyang have reported extremely boring existences where they are not allowed to leave their immediate living space without government chauffeurs – and the inability to walk around in the city by themselves or travel anywhere outside of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang’s Unspoken Virtues

Yet, it’s this mysterious nature of the city that seems to have created an aura of mystique or even romanticism. The inability to pierce the veil of the city leads adventurers to experience the thrilling game of craning one’s neck to get a better glimpse of the lives of North Koreans.

Although the city is vastly more luxurious compared to the rest of the country, the luxury represents how the architects of the country desired all of the DPRK to someday be. The state was supposed to be a socialist utopia, where every resident would be given the keys to all-expenses paid housing, where work days never exceeded 8 hours, vacations were plenty, and bountiful harvests plus strong economic relations would assure a country that’s well-fed. Meanwhile, modern subways, railroads and conveniences would keep the socialist utopia on the same footing as capitalist competitors.

Of course, all of these notions are flights of fantasy. Today, the only thing keeping this image alive is propaganda, and the modicum lifestyles of Pyongyang residents who are nonetheless regarded by the rest of the world as urban prisoners, closed off from the rest of modern society due to the paranoid regime’s policies of state isolation.

Yet visitors of Pyongyang may be surprised to what extent the city tries to make the most of what it has to work with, and whether the residents are urban prisoners or not — they clearly try to make the city as pleasant as possible. Locals enjoy late-nights at the Pyongyang Bowling Alley or the recently constructed amusement park filled with modern rides and hamburger stands. The restaurants include some of the world’s best traditional Korean fare, and the locally made products – from souvenirs to shampoo to cologne – is surprisingly high quality and reflective of the meticulous attention to detail that DPRK citizens apply to their work.

The city’s flagship celebration, the Arirang festival, is considered easily the world’s most stunning choreographic performance. Meanwhile, from architectural mastery to embroidered art, Pyongyang includes some of the world’s most talented designers and artists. The city is continually recognized for its achievements, although the recognition is sometimes awarded with a secret smirk as most other countries view the regime’s endeavors with cynicism at best and utter disdain at worst.

Some criticize the ‘fakeness’ of Pyongyang, as the city is held in great regard for propaganda purposes, and the accomplishments of the people are given exaggerated attribution to the regime and are often propped up to demonstrate the glory of the Kim family. However, if one peers through the veneer of the Kim dynasty, one will see that the greatness of Pyongyang is truly attributed to the people, who likely desire peace, freedom, and prosperity as with the rest of the civilized world. The accomplishments of Pyongyang belong to the people, and a visitor of the city should recognize this fact to truly appreciate what the ancient metropolis has to offer.

In Summary

The beauty of Pyongyang is undeniable, and when one tours the magnificent architecture it would almost seem the entire city were a giant time-capsule designed for future generations to discover the Juche ideology. In fact, should the world end tomorrow, undoubtedly future archaeologists would unearth Pyongyang’s magnificent monuments and conclude that the city had been the capitol of the entire world. This is, of course, the image the regime wishes to construct.

But under the beauty is the truth of the city’s secret nature, and how it has been built through the unfair living standards of the other roughly 20 million North Koreans who are not given nearly the same standards of food, medical care, or shelter.

The sad truth is that Korea has, historically, been constructed on the back of slave labor – and modern Pyongyang continues this tradition into the modern age. Although visitors may become easily enchanted by the spectacle of the city, one should never forget the price of such luxury.

Yet, despite the dark realities of the city, it’s a fixture of our planet – a mysterious realm that has maintained society on the peninsula for countless generations, and will likely persist and endure destruction for countless more.

Cyrus Kirkpatrick continues his exploration of North Korea and other exciting places. Keep up to date at

South Korean Genocide:
Prayer in Pyongyang
Archive Photo
Pyongyang History
South Korean History

5 thoughts on “Pyongyang, the City of Secrets

  1. Very well written and informative. Thank you for sharing! It’s refreshing to see a sensible perspective that also includes some important aspects regarding the modern history of the Korean culture. I don’t think many understand the impact of the Japanese occupation that controlled the area for decades, nor the determination of the Koreans to restore their traditional heritage. The population got caught between two dictatorial regimes and both regions still suffered. While Pyongyang may be the shining dream of a dictator, it is still the residents that maintain it. Whatever their standard of living, they know how they have it so much better than the rest of their nation. I think they also know all too well not to question that fact! It’s all they know from birth, and they should not be blamed for the acts of the state regime.

  2. Hi Geezer,

    Sorry, I hadn’t updated my site in a while, so I apologize for the late response. Yes, in North Korea the Japanese occupation is still very much on their mind. While many countries forget about terrible things that happen to them, the DPRK has chosen to remember. It could be for political purposes, or it could be to remind the world that what their grandparents experienced is not something to so easily brush aside.

  3. Visiting North Korea is exactly like spending several days in the “Shu” at Pelican Bay State Prison or in Oklahoma’s “H-Unit” prison. There is zero freedom at all whatsoever. You can never explore alone, you are required to have a guide, and the travel tour is like travel in a prison bus. You are treated exactly like an inmate of Pelican Bay State Prison in North Korea. You are expected to agree with what they tell you as they cover up the fact that North Korea is a hell country, where people get barely a scrap of food off the king’s table and live in horrible poverty worse than Haiti, a nationwide supermax prison guarded by armed military personnel authorized to use immediate maximum lethal force on anyone and 3 generations of the person’s family who even shows a hint of dislike for North Korea.

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