Kaesong Industrial Park Panorama.jpg

Thesis | 38 Parallel Part 1

38 Parallel is an investigation into the role of architecture + urban design as a catalyst for mediation between two opposing forces and interests.


38 Parallel

5th-year undergraduate architectural thesis

Part 1: Research and premise




The aim of the thesis is to investigate how architecture and urban design can re-establish a union of culture and cooperation between two divided states. The site of study is the Korean DMZ, which presents the bifurcation of the two Koreas (North and South) that are further polarizing economically and culturally. The premise of the thesis is grounded on the recent developments of the North Korean government taking new measures to expand its economy. An opportunity is presented from this premise to speculate on the formation of a new Korean city composed of both the North and the South. This city, simply named the Port-City, is an inquiry on whether two opposing forces (of ideology, culture, interests...etc.) sharing a common space can be mediated through the medium of architecture or urban design.

The Port-City is located along the northern edge of the DMZ estuary, off the western coastlines of the Korean peninsula. It is a satellite port city created as an economic extension to the developing industrial region of a city called Kaesong. The Port-City operates as the distributor of Kaesong’s manufactured goods to the global market as well as the gateway for foreign cultures and business investments to enter North Korea. It is at the Port-City, a city that is a border itself, where the State of North Korea and the capitalist culture must contest to coexist. The thesis addresses this conflict through a hypothesis:
public spaces are a process of negotiation between opposing interests present in urban design.




July 27, 1953, with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, the Korean Peninsula was divided into de facto two states. It is important to note that either side does not recognize the sovereignty of the other and that the Armistice Agreement was only a cease re to end the Korean War. The Peninsula is technical still in a state of civil war.
The story of the division of Korea starts before the demarcation of the DMZ at the end of the Korean War (1950–1953). Due to the Peninsula’s location between Japan and Mainland China, Korea has historically been a strategic target for the sphere of influence in the East Asia region. Since the 7th Century the Peninsula of Korea has been the stage of re- occurring conflicts, including periods of occupation, between the larger East Asia neighbors. During the turn of the 20th Century, the Empire of Japan gained control of Korea after defeating the regional rivals

in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1896) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), eventually annexing the Peninsula in 1910.

Korea was occupied by the Empire of Japan until its defeat at the end of World War II (1945), which left a vacuum of political control in the Peninsula. Without the consent of the Korean people, the country was again occupied by the members of the Allies along the 38th parallel, of which the United States occupied the southern half and the Soviet Union occupied the northern half. With the advent of Cold War tensions and the unsuccessful attempts to hold a nation-wide election, the two halves polarized further ideologically. On June 25, 1950, the pressure to unify the country ultimately erupted with the North, led by communist leader Kim Il-Sung, invading the right-wing government of the South—starting the Korean War.


The Korean War ended with a negotiation of cease re without a clear political resolution. What had meant to be a temporary boundary, between the United States’ and Soviet Union ‘s administrations in the Korean Peninsula, became a contested border with the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) and the Republic of Korea (South).

For 60 years, this border (the Demilitarized Zone) has remained untouched as a scar that carves across the width of the Peninsula—a constant reminder to the violent division of the land. Along the 38th parallel, the Korean DMZ stretches for 250km across the Korean peninsula with 2km width of no-man’s land on each side of the military demarcation line (MDL). 

As the last fault line of the Cold War, the DMZ is one of the most militarized borders in the world with an estimated 2.2 million land mines on either sides of the DMZ.

Due to the absence of human activity for over 60 years, the DMZ now supports one of the last vestiges of Korea’s natural heritage. It is home to endangered species, such as the black-spoonbill, red-crowned crane, leopard cat, and perhaps even Korean tiger.


The DMZ represents multiple delineations: a political boundary, a physical buffer, an ecological safe haven, and a war scar.


The armistice agreement that effectively ended the Korean war was signed at the site of Panmunjom. Until 2007, Panmunjom was the only point of connection across the DMZ. Here, the two sides face off in the Joint Security Area (JSA), where a block of concrete marks the boundary between the two sides. Since its conception, the JSA has been the place of meeting between the North and The South / UN.

Panmunjom is the manifestation of the Korean DMZ paradox. It is a space designed for negotiation—a longing sentiment from both sides for reunification. Yet the two sides convene in a constant state of contention being unable to settle their differences. 

The North and the South coexist, communicating and surveying, but maintain a cautious segregation of movements and events that occur in the space.
The result is an enduring stalemate with mixed sentiments of bitterness and yearning. Is this to be the permanent future of the Korean Peninsula?

The thesis considers the realities of the DMZ—what it represents, implies, and challenges for the future of the Koreas. By addressing the various conditions of conflict that the DMZ imposes, physically and  figuratively, the thesis explores the architectural possibilities in solving them—or at least provide the platform to do so.


Comparison:  North vs. South


To close the cultural gap between the two Koreas, the economic gap must be first reduced.

The diagrams below illustrate how much North Korea and South Korea have diverged during the 60+ years of division.


Developments in the North


The premise of the thesis begins with a major shift in the administrative policies of North Korea. The old regime of North Korea was established as a prototypical Stalinist totalitarian form of government. Although it describes itself as a socialist republic, in reality the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a dictatorship built on a cult of personality around the Kim family. When DPRK was formally declared in 1948, its first president Kim Il Sung established the Juche-ideology, a political thesis built on self-reliance.

Due to its isolationist policies, the country came to be called the hermit kingdom.

The combination of such economic policies and the State’s inefficient management of production have resulted in mass shortages, particularly of food production. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 16 million people are in need of food aid throughout the country.

Since coming to power in late 2011, the new administration under Kim Jong Un, has been publicly advocating new approaches to its economic policies. Plans of creating Special Economic Zones are under progress.

North Korea’s of official economy has basically collapsed. State-owned enterprises have mostly failed, while military expenditures have continued to rise. Remarkably under this economic crisis the private economy is expanding at a very fast rate.

-Lee, Y.-S., and D.R., Yeon. 2005. The Structure of North Korea’s Political Economy

Special Economic Zones


The leadership of North Korea is currently developing plans for Special Economic Zones (SEZ) throughout the country. 

The purpose of these sanctioned cities is to attract foreign investments and strengthen its economy. 


Black: Planned Special Economic Zones

Red: Special Economic Zones along coast.


An existing model of a SEZ is the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIP), a cooperative effort with South Korea.

The current development of capitalist initiatives transpiring in North Korea is the proposition to the design of the Port City (named KPC), which is an SEZ extension to the existing Kaesong Industrial Complex.


Kaesong Industrial Complex


The collaborative efforts at Kaesong Industrial Complex has extended a flow of commerce across the DMZ. 

South Korea supplies KIC with the capital and the logistics for producing goods, while North Korea provides the businesses invested in KIC with cheap labor and place of production.


In 2002, the Kaesong Industrial Complex was formed as a special administrative industrial region of DPRK.

Hired by Pyongyang, Hyundai Asan, an arm of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group, has been in charge of the master plan of KIC.

The master plan includes 6,400 acres of industrial zone and 9,600 acres of supporting zone (including Kaesong).

KIC offers low cost labor for South Korean capital, while providing a growing source of income for North Korea. Construction started in June 2003 and pilot phase construction was competed in June 2004.

As of April 2009, 104 Companies are under full operation.

As of April 2013, South Korean companies employed ~53,000 North Korean workers.


Kaesong and KIC along the DMZ


Development of Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC)


As much as historically progressive the efforts at the Kaesong Industrial Complex have been in opening up communication across the DMZ, the current model of interaction between the people of North and South Korea are limited by the State. The spaces that the South Koreans can inhabit are strictly regulated and segregated from those of the North Korean employees. Essentially, the complex is composed of bastions of South Korea within a  eld of North Korea—not a true assimilation of the two sides. Although the Kaesong Industrial Complex has made some economic gains, in order to sustain a collaborative relationship and address the greater socio-political differences, the model of coexistence must change.

With the development of future Special Economic Zones near the horizon, the new cities where similar collaborative efforts between the North and South are to converge provide opportunities to envision alternative realities of coexistence.

The Port-City assumes the role of the State in heavily regulating the way the North Koreans interact with the special sanctions of capitalist environments in the city. However, as the story of its growth will tell, the Port-City challenges the KIC model of assimilation and questions what would occur at the conjunction of both environments.


Proposal:   Placing the Port City


Reflective of the relationship between Seoul (city) and Incheon (port city) of South Korea, the Port-City of Kaesong becomes an extension to the  flow of goods from Kaesong and KIC.

The Port-City functions as the gateway to not only Kaesong, but the North Korean economy as a whole. Its location is selected for its proximity to Kaesong and direct access to the Yellow Sea.