[KS] KSR 2005-02: _Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital_, by Chris Springer

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Sep 22 06:15:33 EDT 2005

_Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital_, by Chris 
Springer. With photos by Eckart Dege. Budapest: Entente Bt, 2003. 159 
pages. ISBN 9-630081-04-0.

Reviewed by Valérie Gelézeau
Laboratoire d'Etudes Coréennes,
vgelezeau at yahoo.com

	One of the rare reference works to be found today about 
Pyongyang, this pocket book offers, rather than a "hidden history" of 
the North Korean capital, an "illustrated geographical glimpse" of 
its sites and main features. The author, a journalist who lived for 
several years in Budapest and who is also known for another city 
guide about a reclusive capital (Tirana in Your Pocket), traveled 
extensively in Central and Eastern Europe and visited Pyongyang in 
1995 and 2002. The simple structure of the book reflects both the 
nature of the project (a presentation of Pyongyang, its sites and 
monuments), as well as the scarcity of references available about 
North Korea in general and Pyongyang in particular.

	After a short introduction reminding readers of well-known 
facts, the book proceeds with a small section entitled "Background" 
(13-31), dealing with history and politics. A chronology recalls 
selected dates of Pyongyang's history, and a few paragraphs develop 
the vicissitudes of the city's history between 1945 and 1960, 
covering its devastation during the Korean War and subsequent 
reconstruction. The section on political aspects briefly presents two 
biographical notices of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as 
discussion of the eccentricities of the North Korean regime, which 
"turned the personality cult into an actual dynasty" (26). The rest 
of the book ("Sites", 33-149) consists of a quite extensive catalogue 
of the main sites of Pyongyang (although each is described rather 
briefly), as if the reader were to follow a tour, which travels-as 
typically in city guides-from the central city to more peripheral 

	This "geographical glimpse" of the city and its sites is 
accompanied by 6 maps, including a general map of Pyongyang (94-95), 
referencing all 140 sites mentioned in the text. Although not 
geographical maps per se (for example, they do not give detailed 
indication of the urban topography), they do give precise locations, 
including those of several vanished sites that played an important 
role in the city's history (Pyongyang airport, the Tosongrang slums, 
the kisaeng village). Most of the sites appear in pictures, thanks to 
numerous photos provided by Eckart Dege, himself one of the few to 
have written about Pyongyang (see Geojournal, 1990).

	Although the title does not reflect the book's genuine 
content (certainly it is not a history, "hidden" or not, of the North 
Korean capital), the book does differ from a simple tour guide for 
several reasons. The catalogue of sites not only gives historical 
and/or architectural facts, but also often includes interesting 
comments and anecdotes, such as about the destruction of Ryunhwanson 
Street (64) or about the Soviet Army statue (63). The description of 
sites is also scattered with numerous general notes about Pyongyang 
and the regime, popular culture, history, etc., as e.g. on "Apartment 
life" (59) and "The 1967 Flood" (98-99), that reveal discrepancies 
between official history and other interpretations. We are told that 
the manuscript has been vetted by such notable scholars as Andrei 
Lankov and Eckart Dege, which encourages confidence in these 
elements, and the quality of the illustrations and the precise maps 
are indeed assets.

	Considering the nature of the project, however, one regrets 
that this book nurtures the usual view of Pyongyang, a view that 
stands already in its own introduction: that it is "an inorganic 
city", where inhabitants stand as ghosts, crushed by the 
monumentality of the sites and monuments erected by the regime. Isn't 
there something more to be discovered and experienced in 
Pyongyang-even when one is "shepherded by government minders and 
segregated from the population" (9)? More technical regrets about the 
book include its transliteration choice, which follows the North 
Korean system, with no reference to the McCune-Reischauer 
romanization. This transliteration, together with a list of 
"suggested reading" instead of a more formal and extensive 
bibliography, suggests that the book is intended for the (very rare) 
traveller rather than the academic.

	The work, whose title creates a false impression, is indeed 
not an academic book per se. But, as a very precise catalogue of over 
100 sites in the city, with a critical stance towards the regime's 
official history, and accompanied by Dege's splendid collection of 
photos, it does provide a useful starting point in coming to grips 
with Pyongyang, and offers valuable references for dealing with other 
materials about the city. As such, one might consider it a worthy 
glimpse at the North Korean capital and its landscape from the realm 
of critical geography.

Gelézeau, Valérie 2005
_Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital_, by Chris 
Springer,  (2003)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2005, no. 02
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr05-02.htm
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