Mirae Scientist’s Street was opened at the end of 2015. Its eccentric, retro-futuristic style of architecture has captured the imagination of spectators to Pyongyang. Iconized by the atom themed residential tower at the top of the street, the complex become a prominent feature of the city’s photography, re-visualizing the capital of the DPRK in a new light. But just what is it all about? Why name and theme a street like this? Scientist’s street is not something fancy, but an emblematic representation of Kim Jong Un’s political aspirations and the careful narratives he strives to craft to legitimate his leadership. For a single street, this is deep. I got to look around in 2017.
It isn’t just the name and the fancy tower, scientist’s street is like a cartoon representation of the future, or even reminiscent of Disneyland’s “tomorrowland”. When we arrived at the street evening, a guy in my group remarked “this is like the Jettisons!“. The street has been crafted to a unique level of detail. The buildings are painted and decorated with bright, stand out colours to emphasize light and technology. The shopfronts and other units are decorated with lit symbols such as atoms, planets and other scientific iconography. It has an atmosphere and it strikes you, but that is all part and parcel of its overbearing political message.
But what is that message? Kim Jong-un seeks to portray and emphasize North Korea as a leader in science and technology. It forms a strong aspect of the Juche idea, which calls for independent scientific innovation to develop a country against its adversaries. Most of this of course is little more than rhetoric given the economic state of the country, but there is one big and various obvious element of it which is not. Nuclear development. Kim has wrapped the DPRK nuclear weapon program in the language of scientific achievement. Alongside the military aspect, there is a goal to utilize the nuclear technology in order to create nuclear energy. Together, these goals are termed the Byungjjin policy, whereby nuclear weaponry and energy are advocated simultaneously to help develop the country.
The message that science street tells is that in North Korea, nuclear weaponry is not just a pinnacle of defense, but also of pride, prestige and status. It is a constant reminder of what the regime claims it has achieved and what it wants to achieve. Unlike residential streets in capitalist societies, where they emerge out of economic considerations and immediate practicalities, in North Korea, every street embodies a political message closely associated with the regime. Other streets, such as Tongil street (unification), Ryomyong Street (Dawn= Kim Il-Sung) do exactly the same thing.
Thus, given the centralized nature of the North Korean state and its authority, Kim Jong-un is able to literally shape and articulate Pyongyang to his very needs. Scientific achievement both projects and consolidates power. Despite the fact that Scientist’s street is ultimately more style than substance, we gain the powerful and visual imagination of a city and country moving forwards, for locals this might just invigorate some nationalistic pride. After all, with North Korea’s nuclear program progressing, despite sanctions, there has to be something to show for it. War isn’t on the agenda, so how do you idealize the creation of weapons that will be never used and never seen? You build a street themed around it, hence we have Mirae Scientist’s Street.