When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un toured the sparkling new Pyongyang Airport last week, he was happy. The state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted him saying the facility had been built well “as required by modern architectural beauty and national character.” But throughout the event, the building’s chief architect Ma Won Chun was conspicuously missing.
According to The Telegraph, 58-year-old Won Chun was allegedly executed late last year after Jong Un visited the construction site and was dissatisfied with the initial design. In a report at the time, KNCA explained that the airport’s designers had “failed to bear in mind the [DPRK] party’s idea of architectural beauty, that it is the life and soul and core in architecture to preserve the Juche character and national identity.” Kim angrily ordered some changes, and Won Chun— described by South Korean media as “North Korea’s Top Architect” and officially titled the Director of the National Defense Commission Designing Department — was purportedly shot for “corrupt practices and failing to follow orders.”
It’s the stuff of legend: rumors have long abounded that the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan had the architect of the Taj Mahal killed so he’d never build something so beautiful again, and a comparable tale floats around about the architect of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Could Won Chun’s story be a similar exxageration? It seems impossible to prove Kim actually killed him because of the airport, but given the dictator’s track record, it doesn’t seem entirely outside his purview.
In April, South Korea claimed Kim executed four members of Pyongyang’s Unhasu Orchestra because of a “sex scandal.” According to Radio Free Asia, the musicians were stripped naked before a crowd of up to 500 members of North Korea’s artistic community, who were forced to watch as they were machine-gunned to death. And in the government sector, the Korea Herald has counted 15 senior officials who have been purged so far this year, in addition to the 41 killed last year.
Aside from being quick on the trigger, architecture is incredibly important to Kim, as it was to his father. In 1991, Kim Jong Il issued a treatise called The Art of Architecture that systemized the country’s approach to construction. It ordered architects to create buildings reflective of North Korea’s distinct national character, following the principles of Juche ideology. Kim also views architecture as the greatest aesthetic representation of the state. Defectors from the country have described him as micro-managing details like how many rooms and floors buildings have, as well as showing up to inspect construction sites — like that of a new “sci-tech complex” he’s building — in the early morning hours.
Within this environment, Won Chun had a crucial role to fill. According to North Korea Leadership Watch, he was “tasked with exercising the the NDC’s unitary authority over the architecture, design and construction-related units” of the state. Not only did he design or supervise the design of many major facilities — the People’s Theater, the Pyongyang Central Zoo, and the Pyongyang Grand Theater, among others — but he also dreamed up Kim’s official residence as well as his vacation house. The final act in his long, illustrious, and ultimately sad career looks to have been the airport, and it seems doubtful many will want to visit it now.