Everyone knows that North Korea is one of the few remaining bastions of a closed country ruled by total dictatorship; notwithstanding that it is a communist state as well. And so, like previous dictator states before it like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China, the North Korean dictatorship seems to love a wide range of really large – but often strange – architectural “wonders” supposedly to showcase the country’s strength, but in reality are more “mocking horrors.” These architectural horrors can range from the really useful, the really beautiful with pastel hues from the 1950’s, to towering buildings and statues that are nothing more than propaganda shadows being cast over their observers. In a country that is known for being so secretive, the architecture seems to end up speaking volumes surrounded by food shortages, famines, outright executions, and failed scientific experiments. On entering Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, one passes under the Arch of Reunification. It shows two women holding a conjoined North and South Korea, the vision that the country’s supreme leader Kim Il Sung envisions for the future for a united Korea. In the middle of the capital city is the gigantic Workers’ Party Monument that easily dwarfs any monument built in the western hemisphere.
The outer belt reads, “Long live the Workers’ Party of Korea, the organizer and guide of all victories of the Korean people!” Just reading this will make any South Korean snicker. When viewing downtown Pyongyang you would think its skyline is almost similar to Dubai’s especially when looking at the magnificent 105-story Ryugyong Hotel. Unfortunately, this building is the tallest abandoned building in the world and has not been occupied since 1992. On the other side of the city along the Taedong River is the 558 feet tall Juche Tower. It is a commemoration to the ideology of Juche as introduced by its late first leader, Kim Il-sung. The monument also contains a 66-foot 45-ton illuminated metal torch, three 98-foot statues of idealized figures, and six smaller groups of 33-foot figures, all symbolizing certain aspects of Juche ideology. In fairness, a few of North Korea’s architecture can be impressive, such as the sprawling Manyongdae Children’s Palace wherein the building seems to be like two arms like a mother’s embrace. Another impressive and useful architectural wonder is Pyongyang’s Metro Station, one of the most ornate in the world. In spite of all these gigantic buildings, North Korea cannot produce enough of its own electricity, so at night the entire country goes pitch black.
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What little electricity allowed in the cities is used to illuminate pictures of Kim Il-sung. All of the country’s buildings could never be constructed without the forced labor of thousands of slave laborers forced to work almost 24/7 to build them. North Korean work conditions are one of the poorest and most treacherous in the whole world. It is undeniable that the country’s architecture is solely meant to honor its founder, Kim Il-sung, who led between 1972 and 1994, and Kim Jong Il, the son who took over as dictator until his death in 2011. Both are memorialized in almost every building in Pyongyang, almost in a god-like fashion. At the People’s Grand Assembly Hall, one also finds the Fatherland Liberation War Museum and Monument that “commemorates” North Korea’s “victory” during the Korean War, another building and monument that only makes South Koreans snicker in contempt. Other building wonders around the city include the May Day Stadium, largest sports arena in the world (capacity – 150,000), the Munsu Water and Recreational Park, the Sci-Tech Complex (shaped like an atom) and Mirae Scientists Street where all of North Korea’s “scientific” experiments are carried out, such as the creation of nuclear weapons, and the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage with its bright pastel colors.