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How North Korea Commissions Architects

Meet the Hong Kong architecture firm currently in favor with Kim Jong Un.

Not many architecture firms can claim (or would even want to claim?) North Korea as a client, but one firm in China has seemingly found its way into making Kim Jong Un a happy, repeat customer.

PLT Planning and Architecture, with offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, had previously proposed a redesign for the Kamgang tourism zone airport in the North Korean port city of Wonsan. The firm imagined the military airport transformed for civilian use via two sleek terminals designed to resemble the drums used in traditional Korean musical performances.

Their design apparently pleased North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. "We were told that Kim was happy with our design," PLT planner Otto Cheng told the South China Morning Post earlier this week, in a fascinating interview that offers a glimpse at how the North Korean government goes about reaching out to private, outside firms.

PLT's design for the Kamgang tourism zone airport in Wonsan

According to the SCMP report, an unidentified middleman was authorized by the North Korean government to select an architect to redesign North Korea's airports. "We were approached by a potential investor who is very close to the North Korean government," Cheng told the paper. Then, one of his partners at the firm was invited to fly to North Korea on the investor's private jet. "Of course, they had to leave their mobile phones in the airport before entering the country," Cheng added. The planner would not identify the investor or their country of origin.

Cheng also tells the Hong Kong paper that he finds local projects less satisfying and Hong Kong "less receptive to creative ideas" than in previous years. That boredom and frustration apparently translates into embracing a rather unique collection of clients, including, according to SCMP, the governments of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq and Peru. The firm's online portfolio doesn't list any projects in those countries, though it's easy to guess why they'd choose not to publicize them.


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As for his firm's potential next project, Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport, it was built shortly after World War II only to suffer severe water damage after the U.S. Air Force bombed the nearby Toksan Dam in 1953. It was repaired and expanded into its current form soon after the Korean War. In 2011, it added a small, forgettable glass structure next door to accommodate customs operations. The airport has a modest collection of amenities including a duty free shop. Air China offer flights from Pyongyang to Beijing and Air Koryo, North Korea's national airline, offers multiple domestic routes and a limited selection of international flights around the continent.
 
We don't know what a redesigned Pyongyang airport will look like yet, but below, a look at what Cheng's firm will be working with:
 
The 2011 expansion

(right) of Pyongyang's airport as seen through an airplane. Image courtesy YouTube/Ian M - flymajj

Inside Pyongyang's international airport. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Kristoferb
The exterior of Pyongyang's international airport.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Caspian blue

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