Kim Il Sung Square is a gigantic public space located in the center of Pyongyang, adjacent to the Taedonggang river. On the other side of the water sits Juche Tower, and behind it sits the Grand People’s Study House. The square is one of the most famous locations in North Korea, as it is continually displayed on world media as the site of the country’s famous military parades. In this sense, it is iconic of the country itself. But what really is so special about a central public square? And what does it reveal about the country’s political order? Here we explore Kim Il Sung Square and its surroundings in terms of their broader architectural symbolism.
Kim Il Sung square was opened in the year 1954. The Korean war armistice had came a year previously and Pyongyang had been completely destroyed by American bombing. Kim Il Sung pursued the rapid reconstruction of the city as one of his foremost priorities. He wanted to build a Pyongyang which represented progress, superiority and achievement, desiring it to be “the city of the future“. In doing so, he designed an enormous public square with inspiration derived to China’s Tiananmen. But of course, what purpose did it serve?
In traditional East Asian thought, capital cities were designed to affiliate the geographical “center” of the city as the symbolic core of leadership, enlightenment and righteousness. Confucian teaching taught that leaders were to be virtuous, benevolent and course wise sitting at the “center of all things”, thus cities were built to reflect these connotations accordingly. For example, at the exact heart of China’s Beijing sits the Tiananmen Gate and Square. In Chinese, this translates to: “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” （天安门）for it was the gateway to the residence and presence of the emperor himself, whom termed the “son of heaven” was depicted as the paramount heart of all wisdom and righteousness. After the rise of the Communist Party in 1949, this symbolism obtained a new character in the light of glorifying China’s revolution and the legacy of Mao Zedong at the heart of it all, with the former leader now being preserved there on public display.
In South Korea, deriving from the pre-division days of the Choson Dynasty, Seoul follows the same pattern. At the very heart of what was the capital of all Korea in a pattern identical to Beijing sits Gwanghuamun, translated to “The Gate of Exchanging Light” (光化门）(광화문). Again the geographical center of the city symbolized the emperor of Korea was the seat of harmony and virtue. Thus quite a strong and lasting symbolic precedent had been set. How of course does this then relate to North Korea? Kim Il Sung sought to construct in the traditional sense, a like minded “spiritual center” of his newly rebuilt Pyongyang which placed emphasis upon himself as the seat of all wisdom, progress and power in North Korea. Thus unsurprisingly rather than naming it symbolically as per other cities, he named the new facility after himself “Kim Il Sung Square”. Although he was not resident here (like that of leaders of old in Seoul and Beijing) he would place several of the country’s ministries within it. In addition, what would then be placed around the square over time would further develop these concepts.
First of all, the Grand People’s Study House is the most notable structure within the vicinity, towering above the square in traditional Korean style as if it were a royal palace. Why is it there specifically? The Study House is politically important to the fact it is the biggest library in the country and thus a majestic source of knowledge, instruction and guidance. That it would be placed at the very “center” directly affiliates it with the symbolism of the square. In the center lies all knowledge and wisdom. Secondly, across the water and purposefully adjacent to it is Juche tower, monument to the country’s ideology and political thought, again attributed to Kim Il Sung. The connotations are the same, with the country’s ideology thus being displayed most triumphantly at this location as its “spiritual heart”. The use of the square for parades thus add to that in the modern sense by also reaffirming it is the center of might and power.
Therefore, Kim Il Sung square exists as the literal and spiritual heart of Pyongyang itself. In the country’s political discourse, Kim Il Sung himself is of course that very center, hence he is sometimes described as the sun. The square, endowed with his name, purposefully plays upon that legacy and in turn develops traditional aspects of Confucian leadership and city design into socialist modernity. Like emperors of old, the personality cult of the DPRK leaders is depicted in the sense of all embracing righteousness, wisdom and benevolence. The square and its surroundings subsequently serve as a constant reminder of that.