A partial list of buildings which survived the Korean War in Pyongyang.
Pre-Korean War Buildings in Pyongyang, North Korea
June 25 (6.25) marks the start of the Korean War. Over the course of the war, American aerial and naval bombardment would level most North Korean cities to the ground. A common claim is that only two modern buildings were left standing in Pyongyang after the war.
While it is difficult to qualify what condition a building would need to be 'left standing', at least four modern structures which predate the Korean War remain in Pyongyang today.
Today we take a look at the pre-war buildings remaining in Pyongyang up until today (or at least very recently).
The Party Foundation Museum
Today’s Party Foundation Museum (당창건사적관 | 黨創建史蹟館), itself dedicated to the meeting which established the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on 10 October 1945, is housed in what was once the South Pyong’an Province Commercial Museum of colonial Pyongyang.
The Commercial Museum was first opened on 29-30 November 1923 with an exhibition of cultural relics and local products. The opening coincided with the opening of the Taedong River Bridge down the street to much funfair.
In 1924, the Commercial Museum hosted the National Products Exhibition with approximately 2000 famous brands displayed under one roof. The next year a Fruit Products exhibition was held on location as well as an exhibition of cultural relics from the Rakrang Kingdom.
In 1928, the museum was robbed by the repeat criminal the Chon Sang Sun.
Today the 1923 structure remains as well as a nearby Japanese-style house, where Kim Il Sung lived on his return to Pyongyang.
After serving as a government building and the meeting place for the foundation of the WPK, the building was converted to the museum it is today in 1970.
Pyongyang Puppet Theatre
Formally the Pyongyang Public Hall, the former Pyongyang Puppet Theatre (평양인형극장 | 平壤人形劇場) was one of the most unique buildings in the city until 2018/9 when it was demolished.
Designed in 1933-34 and completed in 1937, the building is made of very yellow (and very sturdy) brick and masonry in Japanese colonial-era Expressionist style.
The building replaced an older public hall with the notable addition of a recording room, dance hall, and a swimming pool.
The American author and activist Helen Keller visited Pyongyang the same year as the Public Hall opening and gave a well-received lecture-meeting to the general public in the auditorium.
Post-1945 It was converted to a meeting hall for the Employees and Traffic Workers under the Ministry of Transport and later converted to the Pyongyang Art Theatre. Likely in the 1970’s the building became the Pyongyang Puppet Theatre, presumably following the construction of the larger Mansudae Art Theatre.
Update: One of our readers has informed us that the Pyongyang Puppet Theatre has been torn down, sometime in late 2018-2019. The former site is now a vacant lot.
Paek Son Haeng’s Memorial Hall
While the Pyongyang Public Hall served as a general municipal civic centre for Pyongyang’s Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Anglo-American residents, the city also had a public hall solely for the Korean community -- the Paek Son Haeng Memorial Hall（백선행기념관 | 白善行紀念館).
Located on the banks of the Taedong River, this three-story stone building was opened in May 1929 to much fanfare, including a speech by prominent community leader Cho Man Sik.
The hall takes the name of its primary benefactor, Paek Son Haeng (1848-1933), a young widow turned businesswoman who contributed to many community projects, including schools and education programs. Kim Il Sung’s biography With the Century mentions he was the beneficiary of her philanthropy.
The building somehow survived the Korean War and was maintained post-war as a civic building.
Pyongyang City Hall
Pyongyang’s former city hall（평양시정 | 平壤市政) today houses the Pyongyang City Peoples’ Committee, serving a similar role to the past. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung gave a speech and greeted crowds from this building on May Day 1947.
In 1950, following the UN capture of Pyongyang, South Korean President Rhee Syngman also gave a speech from the building.
It is difficult to see the building today due to its location near central government areas in the capital. The building’s distinctive rounded facade remains, but the structure has no doubt undergone renovations over the years.
Other Pre-Korean War Structures
In Pyongyang, a number of other modern pre-war buildings which were extensively damaged and rebuilt on the same location following the war.
Moranbong Theatre (모란봉극장 | 牡丹峰劇場), opened in 1946, was one of the earliest buildings constructed in post-liberation Pyongyang. The theatre occupied the former site of the former Japanese Shinto shrine on the southern flank of Moranbong, a prominent location visible to the city’s citizenry below, and its construction could be seen as a symbolic end to Japanese colonial rule.
In 1948, the theatre hosted discussions between northern and southern Koreans
During the Korean War, the theatre went underground. French filmmaker and author Chris Marker recounted the theatre’s role in the war in his Coréennes (1959).
To-night and every night… Like the Windmill Theatre during the blitz, the underground theater of Moranbong kept playing, every day of the war. The sound of the bombardments disappeared, swallowed up by the earth. Outside, Pyongyang burned, the roof lines changed form, the walls fell, the doors slammed. Korean theater lived there for two years, a hundred meters beneath the hill, with pyramidal corridors, Piranesian galleries, school benches and a wooden stage, buried like a fakir.
Today the theater of Moranbong belongs to the children. They come to see puppet plays: swallows gather in conclaves, feudal ghosts return to pester cheapskates, musicians pop out of pumpkins. The existence of the underground adds to the enchantments.
The building was redesigned and rebuilt in 1954 following the war.
Kim Il Sung University
The nascent DPRK-state established Kim Il Sung University (김일성대학교 | 金日成大學校) in the autumn of 1946. The main building of the university was opened in 1948.
During the Korean War, the university received extensive damage and was evacuated to the Paeksong-ri area near modern Pyongsong, where it continued operation.
In August 1954, the main building was reopened in Pyongyang along with the No. 1 Dormitory. The school’s library reopened in November of the same year.
The Liberation Tower
Built in 1946 on Moranbong Hill to commemorate the liberation of northern Korea by the Soviet Union, the Liberation Tower (해방탑 | 解放塔) still stands today. The structure seems to have survived the Korean War intact (or was well quickly rebuilt in the midst of the war).
A 1952 Soviet film shows the tower standing above a ruined city and next to the bombed-out shell of Moranbong Theatre.
A note on pre-modern structures in Pyongyang
Pre-modern structures that have survived over the centuries in Pyongyang (with numerous rebuilds, including after the Korean War) are Taedong Gate, Potong Gate, gates and pavilions in Moranbong Park, Sungin and Suryong Halls.
A Koryo Tours custom private tour is the best way to see and learn about Pyongyang's unique architecture — pre-modern and modern.