I was part of the first group of outsiders allowed to ride the subway in North Korea - here's what I saw
Jul 26, 2021, 12:46 IST
The Pyongyang Metro is the deepest metro system in the world at over 360 feet, conveniently doubling as a nuclear bunker, just in case. It’s an almost four-minute descent to reach the train platform. At the top and bottom of the escalators, the hallways are protected by thick steel blast doors. You can see these most notably at Yonggwang and Kaeson stations.
To set the scene, here’s a small video snippet descending to the platforms with the sound of revolutionary anthems booming from antique loudspeakers...
This is Puhung Station, the metro terminal of the Chollima line. Before 2010, Puhung was one of only two metro stations foreign visitors were allowed into, even with mandatory guides. The other, Yonggwang Station, is just one stop ahead. Both stations are regarded as the most lavish and were the final two to be completed, likely the reason they were chosen as showcase stations for tourism itineraries. The mural to the back is entitled ‘The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers’.
One of the most striking monuments in the Pyongyang Metro. Kwangbok Station sits in relative darkness, brightened only by this shining, spotless statue of Kim Il-Sung at the very end. It was quite creepy if I’m honest.
This is Yonggwang Station, the second and final stop for most tourists of the past. This arbitrary restriction spawned conspiracy theories that the Pyongyang Metro was merely two stations in total, and the well-dressed commuters were just actors assigned to delude visitors into the impression of an extensive public transport system that didn’t actually exist. If you hadn’t realized yet, that’s total hogwash. As an aside, the murals on each wall here are a massive 262 feet long.
An example of the grandiose chandeliers inside. This one was at the top of an escalator at ground level. Apparently, the extravagance underground is designed to bring affluence and luxury to the lives of even the lower working class, serving as inspiration in pursuing national goals. This was at Hwanggumbol station, along the Hyoksin line.
“Oh Chosun (the historical term referring to Korea), here we announce the birth of Baekdoo (referring to Kim Jong-Il).” This mural depicts the sacred ‘Slogan Trees’, places of pilgrimage for North Koreans. I visited one of these trees in Pujon County in the Northeast; it was a tree, encased in glass, protected by shutters and inscribed with a revolutionary slogan. State media claim the slogans were made by soldiers of the same large-scale ‘secret military camp’ blessed by Kim Jong-Il’s birth as Kim Il-Sung headed it. In reality, records indicate during this period Kim Il-Sung was actually in exile in Russia. This photo was taken at Kwangbok Station, along the Hyoksin line.
Portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il were present in every train carriage. By law, they’re framed thicker to the top, angling downwards to oversee those in any room they’re placed. Revolutionary anthems filled each carriage to otherwise silence, commuters didn’t speak or interact with each other and boarding or alighting the train was an effortless, polite process with self-organised order.
An ‘Industrial Purchase Shop’ we passed in Hwanggumbol Station. We weren’t allowed to purchase anything or take photos. It looked just like the cheap Chinese trinket stalls found beyond North Korea, even selling tasteless mobile covers, specifically for the Chinese ZTE line of phones and also the Panasonic T21 and T45 models. The fact they were referred to by real product names, not rebrands was very surprising. Knock-off sunglasses, fragrances, purses, and even earphones were for sale, as were plastic water pistols, rubber ducks, and bubble blowers. Amongst the plush toys was Mickey Mouse, romantic bears with ‘Angel’ and ‘Baby’ in English stitched to each foot, and a balloon even had Disney’s Snow White on it. Fascinating.