Atira Ariffin In North Korea
North. Korea. Two words that conjure up images of despotic dictatorship, outdated communism and the ultimate in espionage and secrecy – something like an Asian Wayward Pines. However, the truth is that the nation has been maintaining quite reasonably civil relations with other countries all this while. This socialist state officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has diplomatic relations with 166 countries, with embassies in 47 country. Malaysia is one of those countries, with relations between the two starting in June 1973. There has been a Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang since 2004 while the DPRK embassy opened in Kuala Lumpur in 1974. What’s interesting is that in 2009 Malaysia became the first country in the world whose citizens can enter North Korea without a visa! One Malaysian who has travelled to the seemingly reclusive country is architect Ar. Atira Ariffin, who went to North Korea in the summer of 2016 as part of a collaborative project. Exclusive to Gadabout, she shared with us a little bit about her experience there – a little bit about the adventures of Atira Ariffin in North Korea.
In Her Own Words: Atira Ariffin In North Korea
“I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative architecture workshop with the Pyongyang University of Architecture organised by my school (the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London) back in the summer of 2016. Needless to say, it was a truly remarkable experience.
“Personally I have always been fascinated by North Korea. I’ve read a lot of books about the country, the history, the politics and to be able to enter the reclusive country for architectural research was a dream come true.
“Our team comprised of only five students including me, as well as our two tutors while there were also five local North Korean students. In some ways, I suppose we had a lot more freedom to photograph compared to other tourists on a typical NK tour. This was probably because part of our research was photographic documentation of the architecture and urban planning in Pyongyang. Of course, there were a few sensitive things that we were not allowed to photograph such as the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.”
Under Strict Observation
“We were escorted everywhere (even to the toilet!). We were not allowed to leave our hotel without supervision, and basically were pretty much escorted from one place to another on a bus they provided. We tried our best to be mindful of our behaviour and to be respectful of the restrictions which were imposed on us (obviously none of us wanted to end up in jail in NK!).
“We were also completely cut off from the outside world, I didn’t have any access to the telephone or Internet for the whole two weeks I was there. It was a bit hard at first but after a couple of days I got completely used to it and was able to just focus on our research.
“I published a photo essay entitled “Unveiling Pyongyang” which was exhibited at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 and Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival 2017. If other opportunity arises, I would like to go back there and work on a new research project.”
– Interview by Izzat Haziq
Here are some photos and excerpts from Atira’s Instagram feed documenting her time in Pyongyang. They provide a rare look into this capital city where it seems just as regimented as one would expect, but also at the same time not as oppressive as you would think.
After coming back from Pyongyang:
“It felt strange to be back in the “outside” world again. The past two weeks had been too incredible, I thought it would be difficult to not have any access to the Internet or to the world beyond the military-armed borders of North Korea but it has actually been very refreshing (though I was able to make some calls to my parents and Daniel from my hotel room but it was super expensive. My dad was so surprised when he heard my voice on the line. I paid USD120 for a total of 30 minutes phone call during the span of my stay. The international phone call privilege is, of course, only permitted to foreigners and accessible through hotels specifically allocated for the small number of foreigners).”
The Rugyong Hotel
“I begin with this iconic architectural superstructure which stands visible from many parts of Pyongyang, the Ryugyong Hotel. The project is still unfinished since the beginning of its construction in 1987. It was initiated by the North Korean Great Leader Kim Il Sung to attract foreign investors into the marketplace (to operate nighclubs, casinos or Japenese lounges). However, in 1992, after the building reached its full height of 330m, the construction was abruptly halted as North Korea fell into an economic crisis as consequences of the collapse of Soviet Union.
Today, 29 years later, although the outer shell of this skyscraper appears to be completed, the interior spaces are still undergoing construction process. The expected completion date of this monstrous superstructure remains unknown.”
Yonggwan Metro Station
“After being completely destroyed and turned to dust by the US bombing during the Korean war, Pyongyang rebuilt itself from scratch starting from 1953 under the leadership of Kim Il Sung.
Most of the early reconstruction of the city were heavily influenced by Stalinist Neoclassical architecture style. In the past, the DPRK government had sent a number of students to be trained as architects in Russia and some East European countries, hence the adaptation of the Stalinist style in many parts of the city.
The metro system in Pyongyang is among the deepest in the world (110m below ground level). Due to its depth, the metro stations also double as bomb shelters in case of any attacks. It took three and a half minutes to travel down the escalator from the ground level to the platform level. The moment I stepped out of the super long escalator, I felt like I was transported back to one of the Moscow underground metro stations with their beautiful chandeliers hanging on the high ceilings and richly decorated platforms.”
A Friendship To Remember
In the photo above, Atirah is with two of her North Korean counterparts, Kim Ji Song and Sin Tae Il from Pyongyang University of Architecture at their proposed project site.
Says Atirah, “The three of us had been working closely together in the past week to prepare for a conceptual and schematic design proposal of an urban regeneration project on a small plot of land in the heart of Pyongyang.
“In normal circumstances, tourists are prohibited from interacting with the local North Korean. There is a strict division between the foreigners and the local. Felt really blessed to have this amazing opportunity to work with these two talented guys and get to know them on a personal level. We’ve grown so close in the past week, eating lunch together every day, joking around, and working productively towards our design proposal which was later presented to a group of almost 50 local architects and policy makers in Pyongyang. Conversing in basic English was not a problem with them, although sometimes we need our local translator to help us to translate a more complex matter in regard to the design discussion.
“Parting with them was emotional as we won’t be able to contact each other after I left Pyongyang. We exchanged personal addresses but we doubt that our letters will be delivered. We joked about forming a partnership in the future. The North Korean are prohibited from communicating with the outside world except for official and diplomatic purposes (which is only accessible by a small number of people). I will definitely miss them very much!”
Currently based in and practising as an architect in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Atira has travelled to many interesting locations and explored these places in a way that brings forth a fresh perspective. Among these are Kigali in Rwanda, Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan, the Himalayan range in Nepal, Cape Town in South Africa, Delhi and Jaipur in India, the Red Sand Desert in Dubai, Zermatt in Switzerland and Buzludzha Peak in Bulgaria.
Follow the adventures of Atira Ariffin in North Korea as well as other interesting places by scrolling through her Instagram feed here.
From an avid magazine reader in her teens to a writer and editor today, Zurien honed her skills at various publications including CLEO, K-Zone, Prestige, The Malaysian Women’s Weekly, LISA Malaysia, MSN.com.my, GLAM Junior, Going Places, kayak.com, HerInspirasi.com, Harper’s Bazaar Malaysia, Tropicana Magazine and Convergence by Malaysia Airports. Zurien hopes to inspire readers to enjoy the best of travel and lifestyle experiences at Gadabout.