A highlight of any visit to North Korea’s capital is a ride on their metro. This is one of the deepest subway systems in the world (our guide said the deepest) at over 110 metres below ground level, and is designed to double as a citywide bomb shelter, with blast doors at the foot of each lengthy escalator.
The fairly modest system has just two lines. The first, Chollima, was opened in 1973, and the second, Hyoksin, in 1975. Rumours circulate outside the DPRK of other secret lines leading to palaces, military installations and massive nuclear bunkers; but if these have any foundation in truth, we of course saw nothing of them.
What I can vouch for is that, contrary to some other rumours, there are more than the two stations, Puhung and Yonggwang; although these were once the only ones that tourists were permitted to see. We ourselves went through six stations on the Chollima Line; and I am confident the others (17 in total, two of them closed) also exist. Indeed, tours on the entire network are occasionally arranged for very keen visitors.
Likewise, I am not inclined to give any credence at all to the other rumour that all passengers are actors, there only for the benefit of tourists. North Koreans have better things to do with their time than stand around on stations and ride trains just for show!
Like all public transport in the city the Metro is incredibly cheap to use. It costs just five won (about 1/16th of a US cent at the current exchange rate, or 1/20th of a British penny) per ride. That’s a pretty nominal fare even by local standards.
All the stations are named not for their location in the city, as is normal elsewhere. Instead they have inspiring patriotic names such as Victory (Sungni), Comrade (Jonu), Paradise (Rakwon) and Golden Fields (Hwanggumbol).
We started our journey at Puhung, which means Rehabilitation. Riding down the escalator I wondered where the famously ornate décor was to be seen; the walls were plain and devoid, of course, of the advertising I am used to seeing on the London Tube. Music that was both calming and stirring played as we descended to the depths.
Once on the platforms I found that it was indeed, like all the stations we were to see, impressively ornate. All decorations across the network are of course linked to the Korean ideology. They include giant murals and statues depicting one or more of the Great Leaders; and mosaics showing the great Pyongyang monuments or happy party members waving flags and carrying flowers.
At Puhung the main features include a huge mural of Kim Il Sung giving field guidance at a factory. He is surrounded, as always, by smiling workers, some of whom are carefully taking notes of his advice. On either side are mosaics of equally happy citizens; some are walking through fields of rice (in the vivid green I was to come to associate so closely with this country) carrying musical instruments and colourful flags, while others are shown in an industrial setting. The patriotic music we had heard on the escalator echoed around the cavernous spaces.
At each end of the platform are some relief sculptures of industrial settings and construction projects. I think the one on the left of my photo below may show the building of the West Sea Barrage.
On the platform are copies of the Rodong Sinmun (‘Workers’ Paper’) daily newspaper on display for passengers to read. The staff on duty dress in military-style uniforms. We were allowed plenty of time to take our photos, without any restrictions (Pyongyang is proud of its Metro system), and saw several trains come and go before boarding one.
At the next station, Yonggwang (Glory), we got off the train to look around, but didn’t go up to street level. This station is dominated by a huge mosaic of Kim Jong Il in a rural setting that I assume is in the region of Mount Paektu.
The trackside mosaics here are all of sights in Pyongyang. Our guide explained that they are designed as if the platform were the Taedong River and we were travelling along it looking at the view on either side.
From Yonggwang we got on another train to continue in the same direction and alighted at Kaeson (Triumphant Return), named for its proximity to the Arch of Triumph. Here the dominating feature is a massive bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. He is depicted making his first speech to the people on his return to Pyongyang in October 1945 after the successful Soviet-aided revolution against Japanese occupation and rule. The adoring people are shown in the mosaics on each side, bringing him flowers and waving banners with slogans.
Again, we were given plenty of time to take photos here. I also shot some video clips to try to convey the atmosphere on the platform and as we rode the long escalator up to the exit.
Public art in North Korea
I’m sharing these images for this week’s Photographing Public Art challenge. As you can imagine, public art with an ideological message, aka propaganda, is an important part of daily life in North Korea. In an earlier post I shared some images of the portraits of the Great Leaders that watch over the locals in every city, town and village. In future weeks no doubt I’ll have more to show you of this unique country’s equally unique displays of public art!
I visited North Korea in 2019