Book review: “North Korea’s Cities”

When communism took power in North Korea, it remade cities in its own image, transforming everyday life and creating a new model of cities. Investigating the mechanism of urbanization in an authoritarian regime. That was the mission of the author of this monograph fully dedicated to North Korean cities. These entities expand rapidly after the introduction of a market inspired economy since the mid-2000s and liberalization of land management since 2010.

The findings of the study are based on extensive research carried out by numerous researchers who have prominent experience in the field on North Korean science. The book is a compilation of various articles. The expertise of the contributors is beyond doubt, and so it is no surprise that the quality of the individual articles is usually very high. Many of them are regular visitors to North Korea, and therefore some of their remarks are based upon constructive first-hand testimonies.

This study reflects on the transformations of North Korean cities over the last half century. In North Korea’s cities, Rainer Dormels provides an accessible and engaging overview of North Korea’s urban story for expert and non-expert readers. His concisely-written book addresses four key themes: the urbanization of the country, the industrialization of urban zones, and a typology of the 27th most important cities of North Korea. In the conclusion, he provides some pointers to emergent problems as well as early signs of spaces for social change in North Korea. As the author informed us in his introduction, tt’s not often that one finds a scientific book published in a western language dedicated to North Korea’s Cities (p. 3-4). Nevertheless, the author enumerates a long list of Korean language publication devoted to this topic, including the Encyclopedia of North Korean geography (p. 5) published in 2003.

The author of this monograph is Rainer Dormels. Born in 1957, he studied Geography and Theology in Cologne and Korean Linguistics at the Seoul National University. He holds a Ph.D. in Korean Studies from the University of Hamburg, and his habilitation thesis (habilitationsschrift) on the political culture and recruitment of ministers in South Korea was successfully submitted at Bochum s Ruhr University Bochum. In 2003 he was appointed Professor of Korean Studies at the Faculty of Philological and Cultural Studies at the University of Vienna. Regarding any field experience in North Korea, the author visited twice the country: Once in 2006 on the occasion of an art exhibition by the Italian artist Luca Faccio in Pyongyang, and most recently in 2011 on the occasion of Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday. Furthermore, he has authored numerous publications and studies on Korea. The book was also prepared by a long list of assistants to prof. Rainer Dormels whose names are provided in the introduction.

First of all, Dormels account of the North Korean urbanization process fills in an obvious gap in western literature. Based on a comparative perspective using data from different Korean organizations (both North and South), the author unveiled a long-ignored perspective between ideology, industrialization, and development of North Korean cities. The book has then a double perspective, based on analytical data and using political goals of the Kim dynasty. The end product of the extensive research work is the monograph “North Korea’s Cities”, which summarizes its results on around 500 pages. In his research, Rainer Dormels focused on the 27 cities of North Korea – from the 116,000-inhabitant city of Kusong to the three-million metropolis Pyongyang. Typographically, he devotes a section to each of these cities, dealing with industry distribution, inter-regional interactions, growth, and urbanization processes. The image of a North Korean city has become increasingly difficult to describe taking in account the North Korean reality.

More importantly, Dormels’s book is an inspiring attempt explaining the spatial interpretation of economic affairs.  The author realizes that having a close look to the geography of urbanization and ruralization is the key to understand the development of the North Korean economy. The author noticed that the size of urban population is fastly growing, in spite of economic and physical difficulties to settle all over the country.

Excluding the preface, the conclusion and additional elements (considered as chapters by the author), the book is clearly structured into three chapters, with a separate preface and conclusion. Chapter 1 entitled “North Korean cities” provides the contextual introduction: firstly, the location of North Korean cities, their distances to the capital, and the history of the development of the modern Korean city network. Chapter 2 zoom into industrial companies in the cities. The chapter cover information about companies established in North Korea, according to different South Korean sources of information (IPA, KCNA, KIET, KOFC, MOU). The short conclusions at the end of chapter 2 are also useful features. These provide excellent summaries of ideas discussed in the sub-chapters. The bulk of the book is the chapter 3, which consists of a set of profiles of the 27 most important cities of North Korea.

On a global scale, the author provided information about the structures of cities according to the four-stage administrative system, which functioned until December 1952, and the new reform which was applied later, and segmented North Korea in provinces (do), cities (si), counties (kun). Cities were divided in districts (dong), rural units (ri). Counties consist of an administrative center (up), rural units (ri) and working-class districts (rodongjagu).

On a local scale, we find information about building types ranging from historic urban sites (for instance, Haeju as a touristic and cultural center, p. 281), merchant houses; to the evolution of urban structures including streets (for instance regarding the city of Nampho pp. 239-43), signboards, sidewalks and bridges, and industries. Drawing examples from across the whole country, this chapter offers comparisons between different cities providing for each of them basic data such as the population, the area, the population density, and the administrative units, but also climate values (for instance for Pyongyang, p. 193). There are also major allusions to the history of North Korea which justified the name of cities, such as Kanggye (world of rivers) and its spirit (p. 100), which is a reminder to Kim Jong-il’s evocation of the spirit of defending Socialism.

The last chapter called conclusion provide an evaluation of quantitative studies of industrial companies and of internal structures of the North Korean cities. Each chapter is complemented by informative graphs, maps, and tables, and is beautifully designed.  An appendix (in Korean) lists all the relevant names of the North Korean industrial entities / companies. The book doesn’t lack photographs, which usefully illustrating the different urban landscapes of the country. It worth to be mentioned that the book is also available on a shorten version at the following link: https://koreanologie.univie.ac.at/200413/introduction/

In case of any reeditions of the book, and in spite of the excellent quality of this monograph, I would like to point out some issues. The section called “Publications in Asian language” (pp. 402-408) is compound of only Korean language publications, in spite of the title of the section. Therefore, the author didn’t use any Chinese sources or Japanese one in order to compete his analysis, which are sometimes more efficient than the South Korean ones. Secondly, I consider, that the bibliography shall be reviewed, modified, splitting research articles from sources taken in websites. Thirdly, the bibliography is sometimes incomplete and need a careful revision. For instance, the position in the bibliography entitled Russian auto plant Kamaz in DPRK in only indicating the website it comes from, but we don’t have the date of access of the website. A few lines later, a source indicate the acronym NKEW, without providing any meaning for that (p. 411). Nevertheless, two lines later, we do have the entire name for North Korea Economy Watch. In a nutshell, in spite of its length (pp. 401-413), t denotes that the bibliography needs to be reviewed. Another weakness of the book is the lack of fieldwork interviews with government officials, scholars, or individuals from North Korea. It’s a real pity, because it would be the occasion to obtain views of the population on their living areas. It’s surely not a language problem, as the author is a excellent Korean language speaker, but that may be probably due to the limited number of trips to North Korea done by the author, and to the secretive nature of the North Korean state. I also noticed that the sources used by the author provided different values for the same pattern. For instance, on page 172 may provide results which are fully different between themselves. For instance, concerning the city of Kaechon (p. 172), the total number of companies is in a range from 8 to 14, according to the sources used, and this may lead to biased conclusions. Nevertheless, these different counting results are probably due to limited availability of NK statistics. Therefore, in order to count companies, foreign agencies rely on the mention of North Korean firms in the North Korean available press.

In spite of the previously mentioned remarks, I definitely consider that this book is a wonderful addition to the growing field of North Korean studies, I would suggest the author make a second edition by not only updating data (which is crucial taking in account latest economic reforms which impacted the North Korean urbanization and expanded urban areas), but also enlarging the scope of data by providing some information related to smaller cities. I would also suggest to the researcher to incorporate a chapter related to the notion of North Korean districts abroad, such as in Pekin or Shanghai. As the author is a specialist of the Korean Peninsula, why not preparing a book focused on South Korean cities? The conclusion may also provide some information on how urban transformation proceed similarly, or differently in the context of comparable Asian countries, such as China, or Laos.

Finally, there is no doubt that this is a highly valuable and recommendable volume I do consider that this book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in obtaining a complete overview of North Korea’s urban transition. In order to supplement their information on that issue, I would like to invite interested readers to read the following publications. First, a book entitled Environment, Politics, and Ideology in North Korea: Landscape as Political Project authored by Robert Winstanley-Chesters, currently affiliated to The Australian National University. Secondly an article co-authored by César Ducruet, and Jo Jin-cheol entitiled Coastal cities, port activities and logistic constraints in a socialist developing country: the case of North Korea. published in 2008 in Transport Reviews (volume 28, issue 1, pp. 35-59). I do also suggest the lecture of the Korean language article published in 2005 and authored by Jang Sae-hu, entitled 북한 도시 주민의 사회적 관계망 변화 (Change of social network of North Korean city residents), published in 한국사회학 (volume 39, issue 2, pp. 100-134).

Rainer Dormels. North Korea’s Cities, Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company, 2014, 544 pages. ISBN: 9788962971675

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Nicolas Levi

Analyst on North Korean issues

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