Spread across two lines, its seventeen stations bear names that translate into slogans such as “Victory” and “Reunification,” “Comrade” and “Red Star”. Add to that rumours of a much deeper, extensive network of secret military bases, nuclear bunkers and government transport depots… and North Korea’s Pyongyang Metro has to be one of the most intriguing subway systems in the world.
During a recent visit to the DPRK I had the opportunity to ride on the world’s most mysterious metro. Here’s the report.
Building the Pyongyang Metro
Construction of the metro began in 1965, under the guidance of President Kim Il-sung – with a first series of stations opening between 1969 and 1972.
According to official sources, the Pyongyang Metro incorporated: “over 30,000 square metres of natural marble and 40,000 square metres of granite”.
At an average depth of 110m, it’s the deepest metro system in the world; and there are many indications that the passenger lines (which have a daily ridership guessed at between 3,00,000 and 7,00,000 people) are only a small fraction of a much larger subterranean network. Stations are regularly patrolled by the military, and reportedly link to underground defence complexes – while a series of secret lines are used exclusively by high-ranking government and military officials.
The two publicly declared lines of the Pyongyang Metro are known as the Chŏllima and Hyŏksin Lines. The Hyoksin Line takes its name from the Korean word for “innovation” (혁신선), and appears as the green line in the diagram above. It’s the more recent of the two, this 10km track being opened to the public in 1975. The red Chollima Line on the other hand is the original line, and named for a mythical horse in ancient Korean folklore.
The complete list of stations, in fact, reads like a Marxist battle cry: Red Star, Comrade, Triumph, Reunification, Victory, Beacon, Glory, Revitalisation, Independence, National Foundation, Golden Soil, Construction, Innovation, Conquest, Three Rejuvenations, Enlightenment and all the way to Paradise.
The legendary winged horse Chollima was said to have been able to gallop 400km in one day, and appears in a number of East Asian traditions. Here in the DPRK, the name is synonymous with speed and efficiency.
The 1956 Chollima Movement was a nationwide initiative striving for rapid economic development, and massive rebuilding in the wake of the Korean War. There are parallels with Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward in China. The movement was born from the words of President Kim Il-sung, “rush as the speed of Chollima”.
Chollima appears on banknotes and propaganda posters; it’s the nickname of the national football team, and the winged horse appears on statues and monuments across the country. What better name then, for the nation’s first subway line?
Out of the two lines, the Chollima Line is the better documented outside of North Korea. It was completed in 1973, with a total of eight stations spread across a distance of 12km. An accident in 1971 put a serious dent in the project however, when as many as 100 workers died beneath the Taedong River while building the Ponghwa Station. Nevertheless the line was completed, and at Chollima Speed, to be greeted with a grand, Presidential opening on 6th September 1973.
The first cars to roll down these tracks were Chinese; DK4 rolling stock, produced in 1972 by the Changchun Car Company. Sometime around 1998 the Pyongyang Metro switched to using German technology, buying in old stock from Berlin. True to form, North Korea has maintained throughout, and contrary to other evidence, that all technology utilised in its metro was Korean-made.
In 1994, North Korea published an English-language guide to Pyongyang Metro, now available from gift shops and museums (and also, here). It says, “the Pyongyang Metro is not only the traffic means but also the place for ideological education”.
Later, in explanation of the metro’s elaborate décor, it tells us, “its inside decoration is depicted artistically so as to convey to posterity the glorious revolutionary history and the leadership exploits of the great leader President Kim Il Sung.”
When foreigners travel the Chollima Line, they will typically be starting at Puhung. Most of the accounts online talk about tour groups travelling one stop from Puhung, to Yonggwang Station.
It seems virtually unheard of for tourists to travel more than a couple of stops on the Pyongyang Metro. So naturally, I was overjoyed when our Korean guide was able to pull a few strings, authorising us to travel a further three stops: alighting from our journey at Kaeson Station.
We started our journey at Puhŭng (부흥), which means “Revitalisation”. Apparently it costs five North Korean Won (significantly less than £0.01) for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, although I never saw the money; instead our guide gave us a token each, to use at the turnstyle entrance.
The station itself was breathtaking. The first thing to strike me was the lighting, great glowing orbs of silver and purple. The walls were decorated with murals and carved metal, many of the images depicting the usual socialist themes; industrious workers, valiant soldiers.
The cars looked tired, but clean. Some sources have reported spotting German graffiti on the subway cars however, dating back to their earlier usage in Berlin.
The Pyongyang Metro Guidebook has a few things to say about Puhung Station:
The works of art at Puhung Station represent the appearance of the country which is prospering day by day and the happiness of the working people who enjoy the equitable and worthwhile creative life to their hearts’ content thanks to the popular policy of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In the underground station is the mosaic mural “The Great Leader Kim Il Sung among Workers” which depicts the great leader who, regarding “The people are my God” as his motto, devoted his whole life to the people, sharing life and death, sweets and bitters with them.
During rush hours, trains arrive as often as one every two minutes. These clunking Soviet-style monstrosities look about as much wood as they are metal, and their arrival is heralded with frantic whistle blowing by station staff. The Metro guards are yet another branch of the nation’s all-encompassing military; their crisp uniforms, combined with the colourfully optimistic propaganda artwork around them, gave a strong sense of contemporary national culture in North Korea.
I remember the noise of the station as well. The heavy train doors were manually operated, slamming closed with a thud every time a train was boarded; this rose with a cacophony of voices, whistles and engines, all set against a backdrop of rousing communist anthems: the obligatory government radio station.
We boarded a train, squeezing in shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals. Most people avoided eye contact, but it didn’t seem to be from lack of interest. Everywhere I glanced I’d see heads swiftly and discreetly turning away, as if the whole carriage were trying to steal a secret glimpse at us. The train interior was elegant yet bare, simple seating and wood-panelled walls, watched over by two familiar faces; at the front end of the carriage hung a pair of framed portraits, the faces of President Kim Il-sung and Generalissimo Kim Jong-il.
Yonggwang, our second station, was opened later – on 10th April 1987. We alighted here to take a look around.
The word “Yŏnggwang” (영광) means “Glory,” and the décor in this station did a good job of setting the tone. The extravagant light fixtures are designed to look like fireworks; great clusters of multi-coloured bulbs that hang down from the ceilings in starburst formation. Two mosaic murals adorn the walls, each 80m long and depicting the Taedong River which flows through the capital.
The inspiration behind the theme of Yonggwang Station, like most things in North Korea, can be traced back to a military source. According to the guidebook, “the illuminations … bring to view the victory celebrations after the war”.
The station was undoubtedly beautiful, its grand and opulent design striking me as heavily reminiscent of the Moscow Metro. The socialist murals and slogans, too, have their parallels in Moscow: such as those at the Sverdlov Square, Komsomolskaya and Revolution Square stations.
As tourists are usually limited to just two stations on the Chollima Line, there are suspicions that these sites may not be typical of the system as a whole… and such theories seem well-founded. Puhung and Yonggwang are two of the more recent stations, both having been opened in 1987. The other stations on this line were finished in 1973 however, and many seem dated in comparison.
Another possible reason is that these outer stations see less traffic; by taking tourists to stations located towards the end of the line, it reduces the potential for interaction between foreigners and locals at busy terminals.
However, we were going three stops further than most – giving us the chance to see the 1970s-era socialist artwork on display at Kaeson Station.
“Kaesŏn” (개선) means “Triumph,” and this station takes its name from the Arch of Triumph located directly above. Pyongyang’s triumphal arch was styled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – though in true North Korean style, the DPRK built theirs bigger. At 60m in height, it’s the largest triumphal arch in the world.
The guidebook mentions this station, when discussing the revolutionary quality of the metro system; “This can be seen throughout the various embossed carvings at Kaeson Station which has the portrait of the great leader making a speech after he liberated the country through the arduous and bloody anti-Japanese war and returned home in triumph.”
Our train rocked its way into the station before the wooden doors were thrown open, and a thick crowd of people spilled out onto the platform. A group of school children boarded at Sungri, and I had spent the remainder of the journey in a crush of white shirts, red neckerchiefs, and quizzical, upturned faces.
Kaeson Station was notably older than the first two we had visited; bright single lights in a whitewashed ceiling taking the place of marble and chandeliers. Nevertheless, it was grand in design. A half-formed statue of the Eternal President looked down on the platform from a dias at the end, his lower half still encased in a block of bronze.
Along either wall, behind the train tracks, shone colourful murals of field workers, citizens and soldiers.
This being our final stop, we left the station by the main stairs. Our tour bus had driven round to the Kaeson Station after dropping us off at Puhung, and the driver was waiting to meet us outside.
Pyongyang Metro is undoubtedly one of the most interesting public transport systems I’ve ever seen. It would be tempting to believe that the ornate stations shown to tourists were a poor indicator for the condition of the others… but having seen four of the older, 1970s stations too (we disembarked briefly at each of the Ponghwa, Sungri and T’ongil stations before reaching Kaeson), I found them to be much as I expected: tired and traffic-worn, but clean despite that; and fascinating above all else.
You could put it down to North Korean paranoia. Tour guides in particular often seem afraid to let you experience too much, always erring on the side of caution. It results in blanket rules that restrict photography, and seek to hide social issues behind a wall of extravagant hospitality.
This is a country who desperately want to be seen at their best; (sometimes) painfully aware of their isolation from the rest of the world, North Korea seems to feel a great pressure to account for its alternative lifestyle choices. Their secrecy regarding public facilities, agriculture, military activity and even day-to-day life is not purely the result of party misdirection policies, but rather seems deeply woven into the national psyche. Even social problems common to every corner of the globe (poverty, hunger, theft) are hidden from foreigners, as if from fear of discrediting the Juche Thought.
For a government so desperate to save face, these foot-worn platforms and second hand trains are apparently better left unmentioned.
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