Futures Past: Pyongyang Metro [Global Undergrounds]

The doors slam shut – not with the pneumatic hiss of gears, the dull slap of rubber seals closing, but rather with a heavy thud of wood hitting splintered wood. On the platform a girl in a crisp blue uniform blows a whistle and the train pulls noisily away, diving nose-first into darkness. I catch one last glimpse of austere marble halls, glass chandeliers and gaudy socialist murals. Inside, arranged along wooden benches that run the length of the rattling wagon, two dozen pairs of eyes are pretending not to stare at me.

This is Pyongyang Metro: a vision of the future, as imagined in the 1950s. At an average depth of 110 metres it’s the deepest metro in the world, with palatial stations that take their cue from the Soviets: richly nuanced designs echo themes of independence, military strength and the boons of socialist philosophy. The trains, meanwhile, are old DDR stock, bought en masse from Berlin in the late 1990s; though your guides, most likely, will tell you they’re Korean-made. In each carriage, portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang high on the lacquered wooden prow.

It was President Kim Il-sung who built the metro, opening the first stations between 1969 and 1972. In an official English-language guidebook released in 1994, the system is described as, ‘not only the traffic means but also the place for ideological education.’ The murals, the painted tableaux, even the stations’ names could have told you as much. As the guide explains: ‘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’ [1].

Of the system’s two lines – Chollima and Hyoksin – it was Chollima that came first; named after a mythical winged horse that appears far and wide across the folklores of East Asia. In North Korea, it is a symbol of speed and efficiency. In the aftermath of the Korean War, during the reconstruction of Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung urged workers to, ‘rush as the speed of Chollima’; and so the ‘Chollima Movement’ was born, a nationwide effort that paralleled Chairman Mao’s own ‘Great Leap Forward’.

The Chollima Line was completed in 1973, featuring eight stations: terminals with names such as ‘Red Star’, ‘Comrade’, ‘Triumph’ and ‘Glory’.

My own journey along these tracks started at Puhung, or, ‘Revitalisation’: a vaulted hall of steel, stone and marble, set about with hidden ambient lights and punctuated with a series of futuristic chandeliers – clusters of orbs that glowed in hues of purple, gold and grey, like strange, metallic orchids – to channel an art deco ethos through the pomp and splendour of old school imperialism.

From the guidebook: ‘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’ [1].

We moved on – next, to Yonggwang. Opened 1987, this station’s name translates as ‘Glory’; and if anything, it was more glorious than the last. Here, the lights – metal-stemmed chandeliers in burst formation, resplendent in shades of pink, green and yellow – symbolise fireworks. ‘The illuminations,’ reads the guide, ‘bring to view the victory celebrations after the war’ [1]. Kim Il-sung watches fondly on, from a mural that depicts him striding through a scene of booming industry and happy workers.

Onwards again, we rush as the speed of Chollima: to Kaeson Station.

This station is named ‘Triumph’, for the triumphal arch (the tallest in the world, our guides assure us) positioned directly above. Here are more scenes of celebration – smiling workers, citizens and soldiers – while a bronze statue of the Eternal President watches the trains come and go.

The tour concludes here; we’ve seen half the Chollima Line, and not even glimpsed the newer Hyoksin (‘Innovation’) Line. There are theories however, that the Pyongyang Metro extends far beyond these two public lines; even beyond the disused ‘ghost’ stations such as Kwangmyong (situated beneath the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and closed since 1995).

In 2009, Hwang Jang-yop – a defector, and former Secretary of the North Korean Workers Party – told a South Korean radio station about Kim Jong-il’s secret metro. According to Hwang: ‘About 300m below ground in Pyongyang, there exists a second underground world which is different from the subway level’ [2]. Another source describes a vast subterranean command centre, featuring ‘state-of-the-art communications equipment and billeting facilities … comparable in area to the Kim Il Sung Square, which can accommodate a rally of over 100,000 people’ [3].

Given the extent of militarisation here, coupled with Kim Jong-il’s well-reported paranoia (the Leader spent much of his reign on an ever-moving, armour-plated train), such theories, extravagant though they may sound, nevertheless feel tantalisingly plausible [4].


[1]‘Pyongyang Metro Guidebook’, www.pyongyang-metro.com, 1994.
[2] ‘Kim Jong-il “Has Secret Underground Escape Route”’, The Chosunilbo, 9 December 2009.
[3] ‘Underground Backup Command Center Under Taesong’, www.nkeconwatch.com, 21 July 2006.
[4] ‘Kim Jong Il’s Russian Trip Sends Message to US’, www.voanews.com, 8 August 2001.

Futures Past

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