North Korean leader opens airport; closes book on architect

As editor of Middle East Architect building design is my day-to-day job.

And for many in the profession – that’s also the case. It’s a job. It may be creative, it may have social impact, but in the end it’s a way to make a living.

But in some cases it’s more than that – and design is really a matter of life and death.

Take the case of North Korean architect Ma Won-chun.

No-one can be sure what really happened and it’s possible the truth will never see the light of day.

State-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published photos of President Kim Jong-un visiting the new terminal along with his wife Ri Sol-ju, but the building’s head designer, Ma was not leading the walk-through.

The architect is one of six high-level diplomats who has not been seen in public since last year following a purge of top level officials – and reports are saying that the leader of the country ordered his execution because he was unhappy about the design and thought it was shabby in comparison with other international gateways.

According to KCNA, Kim Jong-un said: “Defects were manifested in the last phase of the construction of the Terminal 2 because the designers failed to bear in mind the party’s idea of architectural beauty that it is the life and soul and core in architecture to preserve the Juche [former president Kim Il Sung’s philosophy of national self-reliance] character and national identity.

“It is necessary to finish the construction of the terminal to be an icon of Songun [a word which means the country’s military-first policy, there is no direct translation] Korea, the face of the country and the gateway to Pyongyang.”

Kim is believed to have thought the existing terminal was too small and unimpressive compared with foreign rivals. It now features a jewellery store, coffee bar, a pharmacy, a chocolate fountain and other luxury amenities.

The modern, glass-fronted building is reportedly six times larger than the old terminal – though passenger numbers are still expected to be low and it risks being virtually empty as Pyongyang has few scheduled foreign flights – mostly from Beijing and Moscow.

The Korean leader called the building “absolute perfection” – but I guess that’s of little comfort to the architect’s family.