Looking down at a station platform
Culture & tradition,  DPRK,  Photographing Public Art

Taking a ride on the Pyongyang Metro

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.

Lady in yellow blouse reading newspaper on stand
Reading the Workers’ Paper

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).

Puhung

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.

Mosaic of people at a factory
Kim Il Sung giving field guidance at a factory
Mosaic of people at a factory
Kim Il Sung giving field guidance at a factory
Girl in uniform on a station platform
A Young Pioneer waits for a train under the watchful gaze of her Dear Leader

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.

Mosaic of people with flags and a tractor
Happy North Koreans with flags to wave for their Dear Leader
Mosaic of three people in a field
Happy North Koreans with musical instruments

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.

Train arriving at a station
A train arriving

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.

Yonggwang

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.

Mosaic of city by a river
Mosaic depicting the Juche Tower
Mosaic of ornate building by a river
Mosaic depicting the Grand People’s Study House
Mosaic of a city by a river
Cityscape of Pyongyang and Taedong River

Kaeson

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.

Mosaic of women and children with flowers
Greeting their new leader
Mosaic of people with flags and banners
Listening to Kim Il Sung’s first speech

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

40 Comments

  • Steve Kennedy

    I loved this post. Before Covid-19 was a thing I was booked onto a tour of North Korea for August 2020 but that got cancelled. Still very much in mu plans to get there at some point in the future. Thank you for keeping my appetite for North Korea satisfied with your wonderful blogs until I do finally get there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad to have helped to keep your interest in visiting North Korea alive Steve 🙂 This was an amazing trip, thoroughly recommended. If you have any questions at all, please do ask – I’d be very happy to share my experiences.

  • starship VT

    Sarah, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all your posts on North Korea, and this one is no exception. I have to say, I like the style of their art, even propaganda art, and those incredible hanging chandeliers in the Yonggwang Station. You’ve done a wonderful job showcasing the artistic side of the country. I take note of the Metro systems in countries we’ve visited because in certain ones the government takes particular pride in them, and uses them as a way to impress visitors — a sort of barometer to show how well their country is doing. I remember that being the case in Caracas back in the ’80s when we visited. I’ve also enjoyed reading all the comments by your followers. Great photos!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sylvia for taking the time to read all my DPRK posts 🙂 I really appreciate your feedback and it’s kind of you to also take the trouble to read other people’s comments! I completely agree about some governments using their Metro systems as a source of pride, usually in countries where there is an authoritarian regime of some sort – e.g. Moscow. I’ve never been to Caracas but would be very interested to do so some day …

  • margaret21

    I wonder if North Korea shares the same idea we heard in use in the metro systems of both Seoul and Busan? All trains on a certain line going one way were heralded by one tune ( in one case, part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!) , and then those going in the opposite direction were announced by a different tune. It was a simple and incredibly useful device.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy. We did this on our first afternoon in the city so apart from the Grand People’s Study House which we’d visited that morning, it was strange later in the trip to see buildings we first saw depicted here!

  • rkrontheroad

    This is a rare glimpse inside a culture so different from most of the rest of the world, including of course South Korea. So limited and controlled, even and perhaps especially the public art, fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think it does get very busy during commuter times from what I heard (our ride was early afternoon), but it’s quite a limited network so many people find the buses more convenient. I saw plenty of them that were jammed!

  • justbluedutch

    I am totally digging this post, it´s brilliant. These wall paintings shows a different side of Korea after all. Totally different from the south.Thank you for taking us to a virtual tour of Pyongyang.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi and thank you so much for dropping by 😀 I’m really pleased you enjoyed this! I’ve never been to South Korea (I would love to one day) but I know for sure it’s a very different place to the North, although they have a shared heritage that can be seen in the traditional dress, for instance. Visiting was an amazing experience!!

  • Rose

    Such gleaming photos of a North Korean metro. I find myself most absorbed by the intricacy and colorful design of the lights on the ceiling. Side-note: I like visiting your blog and seeing the image changes in the header, background, and sidebar. 😊

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Rose, and thank you 🙂 Those lights were hard to photograph – I think you would be even more taken with them if you saw them for yourself! And thanks for the kind words about the blog’s appearance. I changed my theme owing to few technical issues (not sure though if it’s solved them!) I’m still fiddling with the look of the different elements but I’m generally pretty happy with it so it’s great to get feedback 😀

  • Marsha

    Sarah, this is a beautiful post. The philosophy of leadership relationships is optimistic and seem unrealistic, but as a photographic journalist, you are reporting what is, and you’ve done a beautiful job of that. The optimism reminds me of the fifties. There’s something flowing underneath, but some of the optimism remains and is real.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha, I’m so glad you liked this 🙂 The people’s trust in their leaders is at times hard for us to comprehend (and as a visitor you mustn’t question that trust). But for most of them I think it is genuine and there’s an innocence about them that can be quite touching in a way even while you wonder at it.

      • Marsha

        Having lived through the fifties, with my mom, I get that. She had that same child-like trust about laws, rules, the country’s leadership, etc. She seldom questioned authority except when my brother’s well-being was concerned. The school advised social workers that my brother needed to be institutionalized because of his mental handicaps. She did not agree. My brother stayed with us, graduated from high school, worked from the time he was 13 or so, starting with a shared paper route with me. and is still a contributing member of society at age 67. She questioned authority when it was a life and death situation.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I’m glad your mother took that stand. That’s a crucial difference between the West at any time in our history and North Korea today. Almost nobody there would dare to question the authorities and it wouldn’t even occur to most of them to do so. They are taught from birth to believe that those in authority know best, guided as they are by the wisdom of the Supreme Leader. Also that the Leaders have their welfare at heart and will always do what is best for them. They have no access to the sort of information that might encourage them to question that. Even in the 1950s your mother might have been able to read books or articles perhaps about your brother’s condition and see that there could be a different way of supporting him? And/or she would have trusted her gut instincts in a way that N Koreans aren’t at all used to doing. Of the relative few who might suspect that the Leadership doesn’t always know best, even fewer would take the risk of questioning it or trying to go against what had been decided by those in authority.

          • Marsha

            I’m sure that is true. What happens when the government isn’t able to help them, I wonder? Mom was law abiding to the max, and had it been a law that my brother had to go into an institution, she would have been torn. The way it was, there was no question in her mind as to what was right. My dad, on the other hand, thought he should have gone. It was also just post the time of the holocaust, and many Americans believed in getting rid of flawed humans. So that played into the history of the day, too. North Koreans – the people have similar issues, I’m sure. I wonder what they do when they have a child who has a birth defect or a genetic flaw or is mentally handicapped.. Fascinating topic, Sarah. I’m not sure that’s what should have come out of those beautiful photos, but they remind me of the 1950s Saturday Evening Post pictures.:)

          • Marsha

            It doesn’t look like my reply came through. What an interesting trip that must have been. You’ve been somewhere that probably 99% of the world’s people have never been. I loved the discussion. Thanks, Sarah.

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