Pyongyang

Overview

Introduction

This capital city on the Daedong River was almost leveled during the Korean War (it's claimed that 420,000 bombs were dropped), and when it was rebuilt, it was planned down to the last detail—in fact, from atop a tall building or monument, you feel as if you're looking down on a large-scale architectural model. It's spotlessly clean, almost devoid of traffic (there are no bicycles and only a handful of cars, although their numbers have increased noticeably in the past few years) and, during working hours, one sees very few of its 2,639,000 residents on the streets (for the most part, people are housed in huge blocks of flats outside the central city area). Unlike the monotonous, gray concrete slabs of Eastern Europe, however, the buildings in Pyongyang are awash in pastels. The vacant feeling of the city is all the more eerie because the empty tree-lined boulevards are wide enough for several lanes of traffic, and there are dozens of parks and greenbelts that are all but empty most of the time.

Statues and soaring monuments to Kim Il Sung and his Juche Idea abound, and visitors are taken to see most of them. Though the city itinerary may, initially, sound dreadful (Kim Il Sung Stadium, Kim Il Sung Square, the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, the Grand Monument, the Grand People's Study House, the Tower of the Juche Idea, the May Day Stadium, etc.), each of these stops proves to be fascinating—even awe inspiring. When it comes to building monuments, no one can top the North Koreans. Massive in scale, subtle in detail, these homages to North Korean leadership and ideology represent a spellbinding collection of statuary, architecture, billboards and ceramic mosaics. The faces of the people represented in these works have an almost Norman Rockwell quality—each individual is the embodiment of hope, determination or triumph. The stark focus of the art contrasts so sharply with the reality of North Korean communism that the entire city becomes a giant gallery of surrealism.

The first building that will catch your eye is the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, a soaring, pyramidal building that would not look out of place in a Flash Gordon serial. (It will likely never be inhabited—various reasons are given for the failure to complete construction, including that its structural engineering is faulty beyond repair and that the cost of the glass cladding for the building could never be raised.) The equally distinctive H-shaped Koryo Hotel, at 45 stories, looms over the central district. In true North Korean style, the hotel manager's office is marked "Command Post." Other architectural oddities to watch for include the ice rink (it looks as if a half-opened umbrella was draped over it) and the athletic stadiums on Cheongchun Street (each of the nine buildings is designed for a single sport, from table tennis to weight lifting). And not all of the splendor is outside—the subway system is rightly called a network of underground palaces, each featuring extraordinary mosaics and lighting fixtures.

One of the highlights of Pyongyang is a visit to the School Children's Palace. Though Korean descriptions make it sound like little more than a YMCA, this is where the cream of North Korean youth is groomed to excel. Young musicians, artists and athletes will perform for you as you move from room to room, and their talent is truly astonishing. About three nights will be required to see the city sights.

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