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Inside North Korea

Oliver Wainwright Q&A

In 2015, Guardian Architecture and Design critic Oliver Wainwright travelled to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. From being locked in his hotel at night to discovering the official state flowers of the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, he tells us what it’s like inside the Hermit Kingdom.

North Korea is a country laden with preconceptions. What were your very first impressions on touchdown in Pyongyang?
The most striking thing is the sheer amount of color; I had this preconceived image of endless, marching grey concrete blocks — the kind of post-Soviet, crumbling, monumental city. But it actually looks like someone’s emptied out a packet of sugar sweets, with all these candy colors — terracotta, yellow ochre, baby blue. I think it’s the most colorful city I’ve ever been to, and it’s a color palette that continues inside the buildings, where you find these complimentary schemes of salmon and teal, pink and baby blue. The palette reminded me a lot of a Wes Anderson film set, reinforced by the very strong sense of symmetry everywhere. The city is conceived around these axial boulevards where you always get a very symmetrical view, often terminating with a statue of one of the leaders or a main state monument.

How much, if any, freedom did you have in terms of the sites you visited and the shots you took?
It was a very organized trip. There were three official guides with us at all times. We were on and off a minibus, taking official photographs at each site. There was no chance of just walking around, talking to locals. When we got back to the hotel in the evening, we were not allowed to leave. So I was very conscious that this was not an undercover or behind-the-scenes experience. Everything you see as a foreigner is incredibly choreographed and controlled.

The only glimpse you might get of “everyday reality” is when you leave Pyongyang. When we drove along the “Unification Highway” south to Kaesong, that’s when you see the crumbling buildings, rusting electricity pylons, ragged children playing in the rivers, and realize what a bubble Pyongyang is, where the middle class leads a very privileged existence compared to the rest of the country.

The city was founded on Kim Il Sung’s Juche ideology. What’s the ideology about?
After the war, North Korea was very keen to be seen as self-sufficient, so the Juche ideology was all about everything coming only from North Korea, not relying on outside influence. In fact, much of Pyongyang was planned by architects who had trained in the Soviet Union, and the early layout had many similarities with Moscow, whether it’s the monumental boulevards or these inflated Stalinist buildings. But there were these conscious attempts to reinforce the Korean-ness of these structures —green tiled rooftops or octagonal columns, which refer to the ancient temples of the Koreo dynasty.

Aside from the pervasive presence of the leader’s image, what other symbols or iconography dominate the city?
The leaders themselves are certainly omnipresent. Even when there isn’t a painting or a statue of them, they’re symbolized by the official state flowers — the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, which are matching pink and red flowers named after and representing the Eternal President and the Eternal Chairman. You also have the widespread symbol of the worker’s party — the hammer, sickle, and the calligraphy brush. Rather than just celebrating the worker and the farmer, the Juche ideology also celebrates the intellectual, represented by the calligraphy brush.

You took photographs of all different types of buildings — housing, leisure facilities, sports centers, schools, even the Pyongyang metro. Was there any architectural genre that took you particularly by surprise?
The metro is really one of the most stunning parts of the city. It’s often compared to the Moscow system and is allegedly the deepest in the world – partly out of paranoia about nuclear war, so the stations can also function as bomb shelters. But they’re also palatial! They feel like ballrooms, with these endless escalators and these incredibly ornate platforms, with beautiful columns, mosaics, glass lighting. Each station has a different theme and the architecture and style of the fittings is associated with that theme. So there’s one station based on the harvest, with light fittings like bunches of grapes and narrative mosaics of Kim Il Sung standing out in the fields, advising the farmers with what they call “on the spot guidance”.

Would you describe the images of the leader as kindly and paternal or rather authoritarian?
That is something really interesting about the Kim dynasty. They always look very happy in their official portraiture — quite unlike any other authoritarian regime in the world. The visual language is really one of joy. It’s always Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il with these cheery beams and rosy cheeks, surrounded by smiling people. And it’s the same in the city’s kindergarten color scheme and fantastical architecture. It struck me as a kind of salve, a balm that makes you forget the hardship of everyday life.

What’s your prognosis for North Korea’s future?
I think unification is a long way off. What was interesting to me about the Kim – Trump summit was how well it played out for Kim. It gave him huge amounts of cachet, while Trump got very little. There were very few actual concessions and the agreement was so vaguely worded as to be basically meaningless. But I am optimistic and I would love to see it as a potential opening up as to further foreign investment. I suppose my only worry is that if there is more inward investment this very peculiar architecture and design could easily be trampled. It would be a real shame to see Pyongyang lose its extraordinary character.