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North Korean capital won’t take back seat to Seoul

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Oct 21,2004
Even if North Korea ceases to exist, the North Korean capital, one of the oldest cities in Korea, is likely to stick around for a long time. “Pyeongyang will always be important to Korea,” said Chris Springer, author of “Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital,” in an e-mail interview. “It sits beside two rivers in some of the best land in the North; it’s close to the harbor city of Nampo; it’s on the main railway line that connects Korea with the rest of Eurasia.” The settlement, tucked into the southwest indentation on the North Korean map, even ranked among the four national subcapitals during the Goryeo Dynasty. Modern Pyeongyang was definitively created in 1953, after it was demolished to the ground not once, but twice during the Korean War. When the smoke finally cleared that year, Pyeongyang was virtually a blank canvas for the Kim Il Sung regime to paint over with the national philosophy of juche, or self-reliance. Thus, out of the ashes rose a new city. So what space could this new-old city occupy in a reunified nation? In interviews, several scholars of modern Korean history speculated on Pyeongyang’s new role in a new Korea. Some seemed to be fascinated with Pyeongyang’s potential. It’s not exactly a model city, but perhaps it could be appreciated for “the achievement that it is,” as Mr. Springer said. As an urban capital with almost zero pollution or crime, and close to iron and coal deposits, Pyeongyang easily stokes visions of an attractive industrial center churning out steel, machinery, aircraft, textiles, sugar and rubber. And Pyeongyang has released photos that show sprawling theaters, universities, high-rise hotels, museums and, the city’s crowning glory, a metro system whose deluxe stations feature chandeliers, stained glass and marble. But despite its gleaming exterior, Pyeongyang can hardly be called a living, breathing city. Rather, it resembles one big monument carefully laid out in a glass display. For example, it’s been revealed that department store goods are displayed solely for outsiders’ eyes and are not for actual sale to most North Koreans. Those from the South who decide to move to Pyeongyang would be constantly reminded of its totalitarian past, as the city itself is a tribute to the North Korean state: The Arch of Triumph and the Tower of the Juche Idea were built to shame their slightly shorter counterparts in Paris and Washington, respectively. The Tower of Immortality is where North Koreans pray for Kim Il Sung’s afterlife. Thus the natural question, asked by Richard Grinker, associate professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University, is: “Will the architecture and statues, etc. in Pyongyang be razed or maintained?” Mr. Grinker, the author of “Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War,” said the solution won’t be as easy as it was after the Japanese left. “Erase a colonial occupier’s buildings? No problem,” he said. “But ... it is necessary to make the point that the North Korean people did not just stand still, frozen in time only to be thawed out by reunification.” Preserving evidence He said he hopes Koreans will preserve the physical evidence of division as a step in the healing process. “The monuments can be co-opted by the people, taken from the state, to unite the suffering and losses of all Koreans into a collective symbol of shared history and loss,” he said. “The monuments, thus, will be important to South Koreans, too, by making tangible their losses.” Yet it’s natural to want to tear down symbols of past oppression. “We have all seen the statues of Saddam Hussein toppled, so there may be a lot of destruction in the future,” Mr. Grinker said, “and preserving [the architecture] might make people feel that Koreans are making legitimate a false, unnatural, aberrant era of national division.” Whether the city’s physical appearance changes or not, the population certainly will. The current regime strictly monitors intrastate migration, and Pyeongyang residents are handpicked for their social backgrounds and loyalty. Chris Springer pointed out that the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il regimes have grossly over-concentrated North Korean industry in the Pyeongyang-Nampo region. That, combined with the fact that food rations there are considerably larger than anywhere else, means that Pyeongyang residents enjoy the highest living standard by far in the North. “With unification we might see not only a mass exodus from North to South, as so many expect, but also an influx from the northern provinces to Pyeongyang,” Mr. Springer predicted. This regional flow into Pyeongyang would be of great significance to the unified nation, said Jose Aleman, a doctoral student at Princeton University, whose works include “The ‘One True People, Two States’ Paradigm and the Politics of National Division in South Korea.” An identity retained Because “regionalism is a central cleavage in Korea politics,” Mr. Aleman said, even after reunification “North Korea is likely to develop its own distinct identity with Pyeongyang at its center.” Could multiple capitals serving specialized functions help smooth the transition process after reunification? Mr. Aleman brought up the German model, in which Bonn served as the administrative and political capital and Berlin as the geographic capital for 10 years after reunification. “But this is not likely to be the case in Korea,” he said, again citing the peninsula’s deeply ingrained politics of regionalism. “Ironically, the more power is devolved away from Seoul if the current debate on changing the capital goes through, the more likely Pyongyang is to emerge as a regional contender,” he said. When the nation is reunified, Mr. Aleman said, the government will similarly have to “implement policies that do not turn North Korea into a second-class region,” such as “keeping as many people as possible living in Pyeongyang through jobs and incentives, raising Pyeongyang’s profile in Northeast Asia as a regional hub, and anchoring Pyeongyang in a wider regional infrastructure of trade and investment.” But Pyeongyang residents, who make up North Korea’s elite, aren’t likely to let the city play second fiddle to Seoul. “Unlike East Germany, North Korea’s elite would have negotiated a deal and insisted on protection of its interests, so you should assume that Pyongyang remains the home of a strong military establishment, a well-supported official class and a set of guaranteed payments,” said Gilbert Rozman, an East Asian studies professor at Princeton. The two cities would likely clash over top billing in the national consciousness. “Although Pyeongyang was ... merely a regional center, the current North Korean government has promoted a mythology that elevates Pyeongyang to the center of Korean civilization,” Mr. Aleman said. If they don’t become like Bonn and Berlin, Seoul and Pyeongyang bring to mind another pair of cities, in ancient Greece: Athens and Sparta ― one democratic, the other militaristic, each tied to the other in conflict and kinship. by Kim Sunjung


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