Dongwoo Yim and Calvin Chua: Pyongyang Sallim

When a country is as secretive as North Korea, it’s easy to make up fantastical stories about what’s happening behind its closely-guarded borders.

Journalists who’ve had the chance to visit North Korea have been served engineered experiences, completely tailored by the government to show off the country and its system in perfect shape.

And so, it feels like a special treat when you are shown a bit of unfiltered “real-life.” We jump at the chance to watch a video, see photos or even better, visit a model home which gives us a glimpse of the South Korean everyday.

The latter was exactly what Dongwoo Yim and Calvin Chua set out to make. For the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism they reconstructed the inside of a Pyongyang home. Visitors can walk through the apartment to get a sense of what life could be like in the homes of their North Korean counterparts.

Over the years, Dongwoo has done extensive research in different housing types in Pyonyang and Calvin has run workshops with North Korean architects and students. Combining Dongwoo’s research and Calvin’s practical knowledge, they tried to “reproduce the model apartment in the most accurate way as possible.”

Complete with propaganda on the walls and typical North Korean products in the kitchen, we see a sober, mostly beige environment with simple furniture. “The daily household items and accessories were purchased from Pyongyang. They included snacks, cigarettes, alcohol, kitchen cutleries, books, magazines, clothes and shoes,” Dongwoo and Calvin say.

The duo point out that they weren’t able to make a full replica, due to the limited space they were given at the exhibition. They had to fit a 120m2 apartment into a 36m2 space. But even though it’s still a staged environment, it gives a unique insight which goes beyond the pictures we can see online.

“The question was not how much accuracy we could achieve, but rather how we could create the atmosphere of a Pyongyang apartment. We therefore chose to capture the most representative spaces – the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and (especially) the balcony,” they explain.

Some of the other pieces were reproduced in China, and the attention-to-detail poured into the tiles, wallpaper and curtains aimed to make the installation as faithful as possible to the real thing.

In some ways the model feeds into our stereotypes of a standardized and stripped-back way of living that we associate with a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, there are a few surprising details, like the solar panels on the balcony, the fact that there’s a balcony in the first place, and the multiple decorations like plants, picture frames and a teddy bear in the bedroom.

“We hope to provide an opportunity for visitors to understand the everyday living spaces and life of residents in Pyongyang, which do not normally (or never) get covered by the news media,” Dongwoo and Calvin say.

“The discussion on North Korea has been overly weighted on the military, missile tests and defectors. While these are important issues to be discussed and resolved, the daily life of North Koreans, understanding their lifestyle and aspirations, deserves equal airtime,” they continue.

“The country is very veiled – but rather than further isolating it, more engagement, dialogue and awareness could offer a possible solution to the current impasse.”

Sign up for our This Works newsletter

Want to stay up-to-date with the creative projects we showcase on This Works? Then why not subscribe to our newsletter – it’s a weekly inspiration hit, delivered straight to your inbox.

Alternatively, you can follow us on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.