The Importance of Urban Management Systems for North Korea

Dolphinariums excluded, perhaps the newest tourist attraction in Pyongyang is the recently completed neon lit residential complex in the Mansudae district. Comprising of several high rise apartment blocks and communal facilities, the project was part of the leadership’s plan to build 100,000 new apartment units by 2012 to mark the 100th year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. While the number of actual built apartments ranges from 25000 to 30000, the neon lights nonetheless reveal attempts at developing Pyongyang into a “world-class city”.[i] However, its ambitions are not equally matched by its efforts in urban planning. Although urban development in North Korea has been relatively successful in providing basic housing and civic amenities for the past 50 years, it lacks the dynamism and technological infrastructure required of contemporary cities. Increasingly, cities are becoming more complex and developing the software infrastructure (data cables, monitoring systems, green technologies, etc) is becoming as equally important as developing the physical infrastructure (buildings and roads). New business parks are fully wired up and monitored jointly by IBM and Cisco, while the Senseable City Lab in MIT is developing tools for managing urban traffic.[ii] The recent proliferations of urban related indexes ranging from livability to sustainability are a testament to the growing importance of urban design and management in providing the suitable environment to attract foreign investments and professionals.


Major economic cities in North Korea (such as Pyongyang and Rason) are far less sophisticated than some other development zones around the world.  In order to be well-functioning and be economically competitive, they need to provide better urban management systems beyond physical infrastructure. They would need to consider projects on a longer term basis since the urban infrastructure provided today will have social and economic ramifications in future. For example, to rewire or install new technological infrastructure in future would cost much more than planning for future expansion.

However, developing these infrastructures is very capital-intensive and North Korea would need to depend on external organisations for expertise and investments. While China and Russia have been investing in the physical infrastructure of Rason, the DPRK will need committed partners to develop its technological infrastructure. Already, as mentioned in previous posts, during a meeting on Land Management, Kim Jong-Un called on relevant institutions to conduct “joint study … with scientific research institutions of other countries and take part in international meetings and symposiums to introduce advanced science and technology.”[iii] As such, while the leadership understands the importance of advancing their technology to better manage the city, they need to identify Songdo’s IBM-Cisco equivalent for North Korea.

Such developments do come with strings attached for the DPRK, as the outside companies involved may possibly retain a monopoly over the infrastructural services after partially bearing the initial costs of development. But before North Korea worries about an external organisation monopolising its infrastructural services, it needs to take the first step in developing better urban management systems in order develop more competitive cities. Neon lights alone will not draw in investments but better infrastructure that intelligently manages the lighting systems in the city will.


“Kim Jong Un Indicates Tasks for Land Management” in


, 8 May 2012,

[ii] “Urban Research: The Laws of the City” in The Economist, 23 Jun 2012,

[iii] “Kim Jong Un Indicates Tasks for Land Management” in KCNA, 8 May 2012,