How North Korea’s capital is transforming into a ‘socialist fairyland’

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The Pyonghattan project: how North Korea's capital is transforming into a 'socialist fairyland'
The Ryugyong Hotel remains unfinished and off-limits 25 years after construction began // ©Oliver Wainwright

Standing at the top of the tallest slide in Pyongyang’s Munsu Water Park, clutching a rubber ring and watching the water gush through candy-coloured loops to a wave pool below, it’s easy to forget you’re in North Korea. The crystalline rooftops of the indoor pools sparkle in the afternoon sun; swimmers frolick in fountains and are pummelled by waterfalls tumbling from artificial rocks. Others look on from the terrace, licking ice-creams and tapping at their smartphones, surfing the strictly controlled national intranet. This could be Florida or Dubai, if it wasn’t for the unnervingly lifelike waxwork of the Eternal Chairman, Kim Jong-il, standing in the lobby in his trademark safari suit and Cuban heels, welcoming visitors with a cheery beam.

A couple of hours in this unlikely fun park was one of the few moments of respite on a week-long architectural tour of Pyongyang, a seven-day package holiday for the hardened monument-phile. I had met Nick Bonner, the man who organises these tours, at the Venice architecture biennale last year, where he curated a surreal exhibition of paintings by North Korean architects, depicting their vision of the future of tourism in their isolated land. There were space-age scenes of hoverships and conical mirror-glass hotels clinging to clifftops, all wrought with a decidedly retro air, as if taken straight from a Dan Dare comic. “It’s not too far off what they’re actually building now,” Bonner had said. I wasn’t sure if he was joking.

Based in Beijing for the last 20 years, the Cheshire-born Bonner founded Koryo Tours in 1993, and has been taking foreigners into North Korea ever since, on increasingly specialised trips, from golfing holidays to glitzy red carpet treatment at the Pyongyang International Film Festival.

Now in its second year, his architecture tour draws a diverse bunch: our 10-strong group includes a Californian globetrotter in her 70s, a pair of Italian photographers, a Brazilian anthropologist fresh from the Amazon jungle and a Tory councillor from Buckinghamshire. Nor are we alone: our group is accompanied by three official guides at all times, and we often arrive at monuments to be greeted by coachloads of other foreigners and teeming crowds of Chinese tourists, marvelling at the novelty of a place where communism remains intact. []