Inside North Korea: An architectural tour of the world's most locked-down country

As a tour guide for Koryo Tours, Nick Bonner has made week-long trips to North Korea — one of the world’s most secretive and least understood countries — once a year for the last 22 years.

He does it to teach people about architecture.

Bonner recently walked Tech Insider through his tour, beginning at the vaulting Arch of Reunification that welcomes people into Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, to the resolute Monument to Party Founding — with its stoic hammer, brush, and sickle.

There’s a certain haunting feeling in how ordinary Bonner’s photos seem — a routine daily life masking known human rights violations. Built mainly of concrete and rebar, the city is as industrial as it is imposing.

Keep scrolling to begin the tour.

Motoring down the Reunification Highway toward Pyongyang, travellers see sweeping vistas and even a roadside tea house to rest.

Nick Bonner

Entering the capital city, visitors pass through the Arch of Reunification. The two women holding a conjoined North and South Korea symbolise supreme leader Kim Il Sung's vision for the two countries.

Nick Bonner

Visitors on Bonner's tour stay at the Koryo Hotel, just a short drive from Pyongyang's key attractions around Kim Il Sung Square.

Nick Bonner

Nearby is the Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which celebrates Korea's victory over the imperialist American forces during the Korean War.

Stringer/Getty Images

Flanking the building are two bronze statues, commemorating battle victories in both land and sea. Roughly 800,000 people visited the museum in 2013, according to Korean news sources.

Nick Bonner

In 2012, the museum saw its massive renovations finally reach completion. A portrait of Kim Il Sung hangs in the main atrium.

Stringer/Getty Images

The decor was designed in the 1980s, Bonner explains. It has seen few contemporary upgrades since.

Nick Bonner

'It's fantastic, beautiful,' Bonner tells Tech Insider.

Nick Bonner

The design also features granite columns and ornate overhead lights, giving the government building a royal aesthetic.

Nick Bonner

Other public institutions include the Pyongyang Metro Museum, which Bonner says is one of his favourites. 'If you've got an hour and you're bored, that's the place to go.'

Nick Bonner

Bonner says there is actually a separate museum behind the main one, which celebrates the building of the Metro Museum. It is a museum built to commemorate another museum.

Nick Bonner

The prevailing use of concrete over steel gives Pyongyang a solemn, industrial feel, Bonner says. The sprawling Manyongdae Children's Palace features two 'arms' meant to imitate a mother's embrace.

Nick Bonner

Prizing concrete over sleeker materials is no accident. 'They're meant to be massive,' Bonner says of the buildings. 'It was built as a paradise city. The architects, they have gone big.'

Nick Bonner

The Grand People's Study House, a public hall located on Kim Il Sung Square, is no exception.

Nick Bonner

To increase the allure, Bonner says there are two entrances to the building: a formal entrance for locals and an ornate entrance replete with marble sculptures for tourists.

Nick Bonner

The Grand People's Study House was built after the Korean War to educate people who were forced to serve, Bonner explains. 'It's absolutely massive,' he says. 'And this is just one of the corridors.'

Nick Bonner

North Korea places its film and sports industries in high regard. Pyongyang even has its own film lot.

Nick Bonner

The country's most famous film, 'The Flower Girl,' released in 1972, was memorialised in bronze. Kim Il Sung stands with the cast. 'It's their most epic film about struggle,' Bonner says.

Nick Bonner

'There's a saying in North Korea, 'Over mountains are mountains.' Over the worst, it just gets worse,' he adds. 'And that's what the film's about: tragedy during the (Japanese) occupation and how badly Koreans were treated.'

Nick Bonner

Sports also play a major role in North Korean culture, Bonner says. Like in many countries, soccer is North Korea's most popular sport.

Nick Bonner

Matches are played in May Day Stadium, a behemoth that boasts 150,000 seats. Due to North Korea's desire to make everything as big as possible, the stadium is the highest-capacity arena in the world.

Nick Bonner

North Korea has also gained fame for its annual Mass Games, involving over 100,000 highly choreographed performers and gymnasts.

Nick Bonner

The performers create elaborate stories and tributes to North Korea through dance and acrobatics.

Nick Bonner

Children in the stands can participate even if they're not on the field. Each holds a large coloured square that, when put together, produce huge striking images ...

Nick Bonner

... like this one, performed in Kim Il Sung Square, a parade in which performers recreate the North Korean flag.

Nick Bonner

Then, seconds later, each person swaps out their square for another one. Now they create the Workers' Party symbol: a hammer, brush, and sickle, meant to represent industry, intellect, and agriculture.

Nick Bonner

The same monument stands on a lawn frequented by tourists. It reminds North Koreans where they come from, where they are, and where they are going.

Nick Bonner

Beneath the structure's imposing height, the outer belt reads 'Long live the Workers' Party of Korea, the organiser and guide of all victories of the Korean people!'

Nick Bonner

Bonner says many people never consider the masterpiece of North Korean architecture. 'This tour is meant to look at the architects who work there,' he says. Even with limited materials, 'they still do an amazing job.'

Nick Bonner

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