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North Korea’s Enigmatic Capital Pyongyang

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The North Korean capital city Pyongyang has both a storied and troubled history. Among the reasons it fascinates, plain curiosity rises to the top of list, because the North Korean government has largely closed off the country from the rest of world since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Correspondingly, accurate maps of the city available outside the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” are few and far between.

Pyongang is located in the western portion of the nation at 39°1′10″N 125°44′17″E. Its name means “flat land” and the city and surrounding coastal plains are an exceptional geographic feature in the nearly entirely mountainous country. The city’s origins date back to 1122 BC. It was built along the Taedong River and over time steadily occupied both sides. Sprawling towards the base of mountains on the outskirts, the city has an area of 1,233 square miles, where a municipal population of some 3.2 million reside. Its inhabitants are believed to be persons most favored by the dynastic government that is generally characterized as totalitarian regime. Grand buildings and monuments, such as the 105-story pyramid-esque Ryugyong Hotel and the Juche Tower with its burning eternal flame, celebrate the power of the government are strategically situated throughout the city for the greatest visual impact.

Korea and the city Pyongyang have suffered from a string of foreign invasions and occupations that occurred between 668 AD and 1953, as China and Japan battled for control of the peninsula. Pyongyang was destroyed in 1895 during the Sino-Japanese War. The Empire of Japan formally occupied Korea in 1910, along with the ruins of Pyongyang, which the Japanese built into an industrial center. They renamed the city Heijo, a controversial moment in history that Koreans consider was an act of cultural erasure.

The Japanese developed brochures and maps of Pyongyang. This map from the Division’s Titled Collection, depicts a reborn metropolis. A series of photos ring the map showing modernization, such as the Mitsubishi factory, and ancient Buddhist temples, are woven together with Cherry Blossoms. The small, pinkish flowers represent the fragility and beauty of life, according to Japanese culture. The message is that the Japanese have brought economic prosperity and have kept it in harmony with Korean traditions, suggested by the ancient-style river boat.

A 1921 Japanese tourist map of Pyongyang, which they renamed Heijo. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.
A 1921 Japanese tourist map of Pyongyang, which they renamed Heijo. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

War broke out in 1950 following the departure of Soviet and American forces that had roughly divided it along the 38th Parallel into two spheres of influence. The North Koreans surprised and blitzed the South, but the situation was reversed when the United Nations voted to send military assistance with the bulk of the manpower coming from the United States and the United Kingdom. UN and South Korean forces advanced within in miles of the Yalu River, threatening the completely overrun the North. The Chinese intervened on the North’s behalf and a stalemate followed until 1953 when a ceasefire was signed. A formal peace treaty never followed, and the two Koreas are still technically at war. A buffer zone divides them, and although the area is called the DMZ (“Demilitarized Zone”), large forces are stationed opposite from one another ready to spring into action in a moment’s notice. The United States has some 28.5 thousand troops stationed in South Korea and is committed to the nation’s defense.

During the war, the Army Map Service collected intelligence to map cities, infrastructure, supply routes, and of course the locations of military units, for the purpose of planning and targeting. This 1953 map of Pyongyang, also from the Titled Collection, shows a city heavily impacted by war. Destroyed portions of the city are shaded in a light gray; heavy damage to city occurred in Myonchon-dong and Chonsa-ni, neighborhoods on the northern side of the river. These areas had contained many railroad facilities and factories supporting the North’s war efforts. Mappers carefully noted the various railroad gauge tracks and differentiated metaled roads from trails that crisscrossed the city. Such information was relevant, because the type of track or road suggested whether large amounts of men and material could make passage upon it.

Map 2 – Army Map Service depiction of Pyongyang in 1953. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.
Map 2 – Army Map Service depiction of Pyongyang in 1953. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Following the war, North Korean President Kim Il-sung, and his successors Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-eun have dedicated great amounts of resources and attention to develop Pyongyang as the centerpiece of the nation. In 1989, the city hosted the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. The event required four years of preparation at the staggering cost of one quarter of the country’s yearly budget. Considered the largest ever World Festival of Youth and Students, about 22,000 people from 177 countries attended, including 100 people from the United States. The North Korean government supplied maps to their “guests” to highlight the rebirth of the once war-torn city, such as this tourist map from the collection. The array of photographs showing monuments and buildings tout the power and modernity. A point of great pride is the subway system, illustrated in the lower right corner, that city dwellers and guests ride free of charge.

Map for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, published by the DPRK in 1989. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.
Map for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, published by the DPRK in 1989. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Present tensions concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs, make Pyongyang a place where few from the west will likely visit in the coming years. Those who manage to enter the city are chaperoned and follow a strict itinerary; the practice serves to perpetuate both curiosity and mystery. Fortunately, geographic knowledge of the city has been growing by way of satellite imagery. Satellites, however, can only depict but cannot describe. Some of the best publicly available analysis of satellite imagery and combining it with other data to map the city and the country is being done by Curtis Melvin of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. His Digital DPRK Atlas is available online and Mr. Melvin lectured at the Library of Congress on February 24.

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