[VIEWPOINT]Dull planning vs. chaotic developmentAs there were only a few cars on the streets of Pyongyang and traffic signals were rarely seen, there was no need to worry about a traffic jam.
“It will be exciting to drive here!” said South Korean businessmen who were visiting there last week to attend the Pyongyang International Trade Fair and inspect businesses in North Korea.
The city looked like a place for pedestrians, as most of the citizens moved around on foot.
But public transportation that was seen occasionally, such as trolley cars that pulled one or two carriages and double-decker buses, were overcrowded. The population of Pyongyang is 2.5 million. About 1 million residents live in the center of the city. On the 10-lane expressway between Pyongyang and Nampo, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Pyongyang, the South Korean delegation came across only about 10 vehicles.
Pyongyang is a perfect newly built city where not only the network of roads but also other urban infrastructure, including housing units, convenience facilities and public buildings, were built under a complete plan.
The central part of Pyongyang was born again in 1980s as a demonstration city to show to the world, part of a grand restructuring plan.
Therefore, except for a few historical relics such as Eulmildae, a pavilion built in 1714, and Botongmun, the west gate of Pyongyang built in 1473, there are no traces of the historical city that was once the capital of Goguryeo Kingdom.
Instead, the center of the city is rebuilt in a typical baroque style, built symmetrical to an axis that runs through the Juche Tower to Kim Il Sung Square and the People’s Study Palace that lies across the Daedong River.
All roads, squares, parks and buildings are built to be physical symbols, rather than serving the needs of citizens.
The Triumphal Arch, constructed in 1982 to commemorate the 70th birthday of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, is 60 meters high (197 feet) and was built using 11,000 tons of granite and 20,000 tons of cement.
The Juche Tower, constructed around the same time, is 170 meters high (around the height of a 50-story building). People can enjoy a magnificent view of the city from the observatory on its top floor.
The tower has 70 layers of bases and is decorated with 70 flowers in commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday.
The Kwangbok Street, constructed to give a modern touch to the city in preparation for the World Youth and Student Festival held in 1989, is lined up with dozens of high-rise apartment buildings along a 5.4 kilometer long street, which has a width of 100 meters.
On the other hand, the 105-story Yukeong Hotel that has been left unfinished for 14 years since 1992 is a structure that symbolizes Pyongyang in a different way.
The pyramid-shaped building is more than 300 meters high and can be seen anywhere in the vicinity of Pyongyang. When it is viewed from a distance, it looks like a gigantic pagoda, but one can see that the unfinished concrete structure is decaying when it is seen up close.
Unlike magnificent looking monumental buildings that boast luxurious building materials or large sizes, the apartments and convenience facilities for ordinary citizens consist of gray concrete or cement block buildings.
Thus, Pyongyang gives a general impression that it is colorless and impassive.
The signboards, especially, such as a “vegetable shop” or a “spectacle maker,” also make the city look dull.
They do not attract attention because they are small and unattractive. As there is no reason to attract consumers competitively, it may be natural that they don’t need signboards. Seeing that such signboards make the city look impassive, I started to compare them with the gaudy ones in Seoul that spoil the charms of the city.
Pyongyang has loomed as an example to make us look back on what urban development should be. If people decide a city’s features based on their livelihoods, disorderly development can occur.
On the contrary, a perfectly planned city controls the daily routines of its citizens. It is not easy to find a happy medium between urban development that lacks harmony and discipline and has an excessive emphasis on individual desires and a planned city that loses liveliness because the plan is too tightly controlled.
This visit to Pyongyang once again reminded me of the fact that an effort to find compromise is essential ― especially when a variety of development plans, including the administration-centered complex city that would actually function as the new capital, are underway.
* The writer is a staff writer on urban construction and an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Hye-kyung