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Kim Jong-Il’s Vision for the City

What North Korea's urban architecture tells us about the late dictator


When news of Kim Jong-Il death hit the Internet, reflections on the North Korean dictator’s legacy appeared almost immediately: his outlandish propaganda! His mercurial temperament! His fashion sense! Even the memes he inspired. Looking at the coverage, you’d think a cartoon villain had died, rather than a megalomaniac responsible for genocide by famine.

Our collective treatment of Kim Jong-Il’s death is indicative of how we make sense – sometimes with great inventiveness – of the most isolated nation in the world. Since reliable reportage from within North Korea comes hard-won, we depend largely on photography, of either the state-issued or the foreign correspondent variety. Our ideas about life inside the country are skewed by the images that leak slowly from within North Korea, either of mass celebrations, empty highways, or the perennially unfinished Ryugyong Hotel. Half ludicrous and half ominous, we tend to react with satire or horror.

Sifting through the sprawling media coverage of Kim Jong-Il’s death, the word utopia appears with frequency (along with its evil twin, dystopia). This is due in large part to the architectural imagery associated with the dictator, both in state-sanctioned murals and press photography. The most deafening images from within North Korea depict desolate landscapes dotted with moments of architectural egotism – monuments to the efficiency of the dictatorial decision-making process (there is no process). OMA’s CCTTV Building in Beijing represents a glossier, friendlier version of this architectural tract. The most fertile ground for megastructuralism is a totalitarian regime.

Here are a few such images that offer a glimpse inside North Korea earlier this year, courtesy of Reuters. We also suggest a previous series of North Korea images, "Envisioning North Korea," along with Einestages‘ images of the iconic Schoolchildren’s Palace and Pyongyang Circus.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site. 

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