Book Reviews

Book review: “North Korea’s Cities”

Book review of "North Korea’s Cities", written by Rainer Dormels and published byJimoondang Publishing Company in 2014.

Instytut Boyma 07.09.2018

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. 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

Nicolas Levi

Analyst on North and South Korea. He is an assistant professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Author of 7 books, more than 20 academic articles, and over 50 analytical reports on the Korean Peninsula, Poland, and related issues. He conducts lectures at top universities in Poland and abroad.

read more

Development strategies for Ulaanbaatar according to the conception for the city’s 2040 General Development Plan- part 1

In the first part of this analysis of Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC) I look into the historical preconditions for the city’s planned development as well as present the legislative climate in which works on Ulaanbaatar’s future development strategies have recently found themselves.

Patrycja Pendrakowska for Observer Research Foundation: “Guiding democracy through Covid19: Poland shows us what not to do”

We would like to inform, that Observer Research Foundation has published article of Patrycja Pendrakowska - the Boym Institute Analyst and President of the Board.

Development Strategies for Ulaanbaatar According to the Conception for the City’s 2040 General Development Plan – Part 2

This is the second part of an inquiry into Ulaanbaatar’s winning 2040 General Development Plan Conception (GDPC). In this part of paper, I look into some of the plans and/or solutions proposed in Ulaanbaatar’s 2040 GDPC.

Roman Catholic cemetery in Harbin (1903-1958)

First burials of Catholics, mostly Poles but also other Non-Orthodox believers took place in future Harbin in the so called small „old” or later Pokrovskoe Orthodox cemetery in the future European New Town quarter and small graveyards at the military and civilian hospitals of Chinese Eastern Railway at the turn of XIX and XX century.

Krzysztof Zalewski for Observer Research Foundation – “Luxembourg faces the same dilemma as the EU: become a bridge or a fortress”

We would like to inform, that Observer Research Foundation has published article of Krzysztof Zalewski - the Boym Institute Analyst, Chairman of the Board and Editor of the “Tydzień w Azji” weekly.

Chinese work on the military use of artificial intelligence

Intensive modernization and the desire to catch up with the armed forces of the United States made chinese interest in the military application of futuristic technologies grow bigger.

Indonesia – between religion and democracy

Indonesia is the largest Muslim democracy in the world. Approximately 88% of the population in Indonesia declares Islamic religion, but in spite of this significant dominance, Indonesia is not a religious state.

Book review: “Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism And Business?”

Book review of "Europe – North Korea. Between Humanitarianism And Business?", written by Myung-Kyu Park, Bernhard Seliger, Sung-Jo Park (Eds.) and published by Lit Verlag in 2010.

Patrycja Pendrakowska for Observer Research Foundation: “The Polish example: Defending the castle in the European East”

We would like to inform, that Observer Research Foundation has published article of Patrycja Pendrakowska - the Boym Institute Analyst and President of the Board.

China – USA in the South China Sea

The trade war is just one of the problems of confrontation between the United States and the People's Republic of China. Many aspects of this competition coincide in the South China Sea.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and emerging contractual claims

With China one of the key players in the global supply chain, supplying major manufacturing companies with commodities, components and final products, the recent emerging outbreak of Coronavirus provides for a number of organizational as well as legal challenges.

Coronavirus outbreak in Poland – General information and recommendations for entrepreneurs

Kochański & Partners and the Boym Institute engaged in delivering information about latest after-effects of COVID-19 pandemia, which has begun to spread in Poland during the past days.

“Green growth” may well be more of the same

Witnessing the recent flurry of political activity amid the accelerating environmental emergency, from the Green New Deal to the UN climate summits to European political initiatives, one could be forgiven for thinking that things are finally moving forward.

Globalization of business, education and China: interview with prof. Chiwen Jevons Lee

Interview of Ewelina Horoszkiewicz with prof. Chiwen Jevons Lee on China on Globalization of business, education and China.

Dr Krzysztof Zalewski participates in the Kigali Global Dialogue in Rwanda

A short note and photo gallery from the chairman of the Board of the Boym Institute, who stays in Rwanda at the "Kigali Global Dialogue" conference.

Internet, cryptocurrencies & blockchains in North Korea

North Korea is considered as a secretive state, but, paradoxically, the country is developing last trend technologies. With prohibitions restricting the flow of money, the country is turning to bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to finance their programs, instead of coming under new pressure.

What connects shamans and generals? On the problem of verification of internal conflicts of North Korea

The number of confirmed executions and frequent disappearances of politicians remind us that in North Korea the rules of social Darwinism apply. Any attempt to limit Kim Jong-un's power may be considered hostile and ruthless.

Book review: “Korean Diaspora in Postwar Japan – Geopolitics, Identity and Nation-Building”

Book review of "Korean Diaspora in Postwar Japan -  Geopolitics, Identity and Nation-Building", written by Kim Myung-ja and published by I.B Tauris in 2017.

Book review: “North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society”

Book review of "North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society", written by Lee Ahlam and published by Rowman&Littlefield in 2016.

Liquidation of the Polish colony in Manchuria (north-eastern China)

Ms. Łucja Drabczak - A Polish woman born in Harbin, she spent her childhood in China. She returned to Poland at the age of 10. She is the author of the book 'China... Memories from my childhood'. She contacted us to convey special family memories related to leaving Manchuria in 1949.

Foreign Direct Investment in Vietnam

Thanks to continuous economic development, Vietnam attracts a record number of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The catalyst for such a strong growth of FDI in Vietnam is not only the ongoing trade war between the US and China, but also new international agreements.

Are Polish Universities Really Victims of a Chinese Influence Campaign?

The Chinese Influence Campaign can allegedly play a dangerous role at certain Central European universities, as stated in the article ‘Countering China’s Influence Campaigns at European Universities’, (...) However, the text does ignore Poland, the country with the largest number of universities and students in the region. And we argue, the situation is much more complex.

Paweł Behrendt for 9DASHLINE: The South China Sea – from colonialism to the Cold War

We would like to inform, that 9DASHLINE has published article of Paweł Behrendt - the Boym Institute Analyst, in which he wrote about history of the South China Sea dispute over the 20th century.

Dr. Nicolas Levi with a lecture in Seoul

On May 24 Dr. Nicolas Levi gave a lecture on Balcerowicz's plan in the context of North Korea. The speech took place as part of the seminar "Analyzing the Possibility of Reform and its Impact on Human Rights in North Korea". The seminar took place on May 24 at the prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.