The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korea just opened its socialist ‘utopia’ town. Similar endeavors elsewhere are crumbling away.

Fireworks mark the completion of Samjiyon in this photo released by North Korea's state news agency. (AFP/Getty Images)
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In a nation struck by widespread poverty, North Korean state media outlets went into a propaganda overdrive this week to mark the completion of a largely new town: Samjiyon — the country’s socialist “utopia,” as the state news agency called it.

With ski slopes, commercial facilities and homes for thousands of families, according to state media propaganda, the city appears designed to project a very different image of North Korea than the brutal one recounted by survivors of regime torture who managed to escape.

But about 5,000 miles away, in a town near the German capital of Berlin, North Korea’s “epitome of modern civilisation” probably sounded especially hollow on Tuesday.

The eastern German town of Eisenhüttenstadt was once called a socialist utopia, too — designed by architects as the ideal role model for loyal workers.

North Korea's state-run television aired video of Kim Jong Un celebrating the completion of a new 'socialist utopia' despite the country's dismal economy. (Video: Reuters)

“From an architect’s standpoint, the development of those cities was an ideal situation,” said architect and publisher Philipp Meuser, who began to focus on socialist construction projects after a stint in Eisenhüttenstadt in the 1990s — long after the town had seen its heyday. It was originally conceived in the 1950s as an industrial hub, where the state organized residents’ lives so that they could focus on work. There were wide alleys, symmetrical buildings and day-care centers or schools en masse. At first, it worked: Living there was a dream for many loyal citizens.

Among the many people who flocked there was then-North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, who traveled there in May 1984.

Five years after the high-profile North Korean visit, however, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and so did socialist Europe’s dreams of the perfect role-model town. As North Korea sustained its leadership through a brutal reign, communism and the utopist urban planning it cherished faded around the world.

By 2000 — only a decade after German reunification — Eisenhüttenstadt was starting to make headlines as a town that had turned from a “socialist model city into a problem case.” Historical forces and the town’s inability to adapt to capitalism resulted in high unemployment, rising support for the far right and an aging population that continues to mire East Germany’s former hub of modernity.

In Germany, Eisenhüttenstadt’s trajectory today embodies the historic gap between the East’s grand socialist dreams and its bleak reality of a paranoid and de facto bankrupt state that spied on its impoverished citizens. Across formerly communist Europe, similar towns or districts that were once heralded as role models have become cautionary political tales.

In neighboring Poland, the 1949-founded futuristic socialist workers’ paradise of Nowa Huta is now mostly known as an economically embattled suburb of Krakow. Hungary’s Dunaujvaros suffered a similar fate.

The degradation of role-model projects has not been limited to socialism. In Sweden, a severe housing crisis triggered one of Europe’s most ambitious housing projects in the 1970s, branded the “Million Program.” At the time, the Swedish government hoped the new towns outside bigger cities would house the working class and create “good democratic citizens.”

The declared aim of separating the working class from the rest of society initially became a popular idea — workers moved in en masse. But that changed during a financial crisis in the 1990s. In some of the Million Program districts, employment suddenly plunged by 50 percent. Crime rates spiked. White workers moved out as a result, and migrants moved in.

Today, the housing projects separate migrants from the rest of Swedish society — a division that is fueling the rise of the far right there, according to researchers.

Whereas many of Europe’s utopia cities were built from scratch, North Korea’s Samjiyon is not entirely new, according to the BBC. To construct it, North Korean officials remodeled and expanded an existing settlement.

Critics fear that North Korea relied on forced labor to proceed with the project.

Some facilities do not appear to be completed yet, the BBC reported, and construction efforts in and around the town are expected to continue even after this week’s ceremonies.

Even though North Korean state media have described the town as a role model for other communities in the country, analysts said its more likely purpose was different from that of its European predecessors. Whereas former socialist utopias such as Eisenhüttenstadt or Nowa Huta were planned in conjunction with a nearby factory or industry plant and faded once those industries declined, Samjiyon bears similarities with utopia cities built as a de facto celebration of political leaders.

Some examples include Russia’s Yoshkar-Ola, where former regional governor Leonid Markelov erected pompous buildings — inspired by the Kremlin and Venice’s Piazza San Marco — next to crumbling concrete apartment blocks. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, long-ruling leader Nursultan Nazarbayev — who resigned earlier this year — had the capital Astana renamed after him this spring. The futuristic city is now called Nur-Sultan.

“The legacy of many leaders is manifested in architecture and in cities,” said Meuser. “Through a new city, they celebrate their power.”

The construction of North Korea’s Samjiyon matches that pattern, as it was pursued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un despite tough sanctions and appears to be deliberately located close to Mount Paektu, said to be the birthplace of Kim’s father.

“The construction of this town is meant to elevate the significance of this sacred place,” Meuser said.

Despite its celebration as a role model for other, more ordinary cities — akin to how other socialist utopias in Europe were heralded by the Soviet Union or East German leadership — “this isn’t a worker city,” said Meuser.

“It’s a holiday village,” he said.

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