DS10 - Défi des autres savoirs

City, architecture and urbanism in North Korea – CITY-NKOR

Submission summary

Combining area studies and social sciences, CITY-NKOR brings together three partners (UMR8173-China, Korea, Japan Lab, the EFEO and Leiden University) that all occupy a pioneering position in the study of (North) Korea today. It proposes an approach to North Korea that differs radically from the prevailing, oftentimes normative focus on security issues, human rights, international relations or politics, deploying a performative perspective that reduces the country to an object of foreign policies. Instead, CITY-NKOR adopts a posture of engagement with North Korea by focusing on a specific object: the city.
With an urbanized population of nearly 60%, North Korea presents contradictory indexes of development (an industrial economy, a low birth rate and a high literacy rate co-existing with high levels of poverty), which raises intriguing questions regarding the North Korean crisis. CITY-NKOR engages these questions by focusing on the city , as the enduring core of North Korean model of socialist construction.
CITY-NKOR challenges accepted knowledge by the positioniality, perspectives and methods that it applies, explicitly questioning conventional wisdom (in academic, media or policy circles) regarding the conditions and possibility of research on North Korea. Confronting and critically challenging the notion of North Korean totalitarianism, the project distances itself from the orientalization of North Korea as ‘global Other’ and the rarely challenged moralizing perspective that comes with it. Such a position entails many political and scientific pitfalls that CITY-NKOR seeks to avoid through solid theoretical grounding, long-term on the ground experience, and a collective ethics protocol.
The project is grounded on a two-fold strategy with-in North Korea. The first one consists in a multidisciplinary approach by a core team of scholars, all of whom have fieldwork experience in North Korea. The second is a position of radical engagement with North Korean counterparts, working with already established contacts: North Korean urban archaeologists working with the EFEO in North Korea, Cambodia and France since 2008, North Korean architects and urbanists trained in France during the 2000s, aimed at the mutual exchange of knowledge and expertise.
The CITY-NKOR core team consists of nine scholars who study the North Korean city, architecture and urbanism from seven disciplinary angles, addressing three thematic approaches: 1. A historicized reading of the urban landscape; 2. A social sciences reading of urban forms, morphology and architecture beyond the reduction of the North Korean city to nothing but a “stage of the regime”; 3. Reading North Korean cities in the larger context of the (post)-socialist urban world. The core team is structured on two clusters, in Europe with the UMR8173 (V. Gelézeau dir. 40% research time) and Leiden University (K. De Ceuster) on the one hand, and the EFEO bureau in Seoul (E. Chabanol dir. 30% research time) on the other. Both clusters will jointly execute the four main scientific tasks: 1) individual research projects of the core team members, integrated through regular thematic seminars & joint fieldwork; 2) group fieldtrips to North Korea for developing cooperation and collecting primary data; 3) fieldtrip to Paris for North Korean professionals (including a workshop and training); 4) archaeological excavation in North Korea continuing the “Archaeological mission in Kaesong” (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) started in 2011 under the direction of E. Chabanol (EFEO) and already bringing together French and North Korean archaeologists.
CITY-NKOR seeks knowledge distribution and transfer through seminars and workshops in Paris/Leiden and Seoul, as well as through publications (both in print and online). On top of pushing epistemological boundaries in East Asian studies, CITY-NKOR assumes a role as cultural and social mediator for media, policy making, and business regarding North Korea.

Project coordination

Valérie Gelézeau (Chine, Corée, Japon)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CCJ Chine, Corée, Japon
EFEO Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient
LIAS (Leiden University Institute for Area Studies)

Help of the ANR 352,350 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: January 2018 - 48 Months

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