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Inside North Korea's colorful, strange Pyongyang Metro and traffic, Part 1

December 22, 2011 - 09:00 AM
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The two stations visible to the world outside North Korea are opulent. 16 Photos
(Photo: flickr/JohnPavelka/Creative Commons)

Kim Jong Il died last weekend, an event that likely have an impact on international politics for years to come. Killed by "train fatigue," the leader influenced all matters in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and in light of his death, I'll be examining the transportation systems of his capital city of Pyongyang this week in two parts — the first part on the Pyongyang Metro, the second on the surface traffic. The North Korea experience paints a sanitized image of what the country is to the rest of the world. The country struggles with many issues, from its overbearing military presence to a deficit of basic nutrition. Numerous reports indicate that North Korea is far from the wonderland it would have foreigners believe. Yet the appearance of normality permeates the capital of more than three million residents. Let's take a video tour of what commuting is like — or would seem to be like, at least — in Pyongyang.

As a transportation blogger, I always find it strange and surprising to recall that North Korea has its own Soviet-inspired Metro system located in Pyongyang, created in large part as a showcase of North Korean wealth to outside observers. The Metro opened in 1973, three years before ours in the District, and is reputed to have several hundred thousand daily riders. Unlike WMATA, the major stations of the North Korean Metro overwhelm the riders with colors and murals. See photos of the Pyongyang Metro here. The trains themselves are green and red. The deep underground stations and escalators, at least in the central locations available to the country's visitors, explode in a light unusual to behold for riders of the Washington, D.C. WMATA system. Chandeliers glow. Columns loom. Ceilings are a temple to glamor. Their Metro is designed to awe those who see the fanciest couple stations. Only two stations or so reflect this splendor, according to multiple reports; most stations are far more utilitarian. Access is limited, however, and some suggest that, as with many elements of North Korea, parts of the system are orchestrated for a foreign audience. The most compelling evidence I saw when casually glancing online was this video, which shows a woman in red and yellow exit a Metro train at the 2:21-minute mark and board again at the 2:43-minute mark. The Metro also has its own museum.

Many images and videos of the North Korean Metro have emerged in recent years. Here's official video, which describes Metro lines moving east to west and north to south from the city center:

"The diversified and gorgeous decorations create perfect underground places," the North Korean announcer says in the PR video amid piping cheerful music.

The overall set-up to the Pyongyang Metro resembles our Metro, from the available videos I've seen. People enter through turnstile gates above ground and then descend on bright escalators into the depths. What surprises me in every video I've seen is how many Korean citizens appear to be traveling on the escalators and in the system, especially given reports of its limitations. The details of the subway system are relatively limited, as visitors only glimpse certain stations and propaganda interferes with a full understanding of how the system works. People seem to pay with a small paper ticket, and I've read multiple accounts noting that the Metro there costs a mere few cents in American dollars to ride.

What would seem a simple system, however, hides great mystery as more details emerge.

More than a decade ago, a journalist escaped the Korean guides and discovered what struck him as an "antiquated transport system" and a Metro that ... well ... as he wrote for the BBC, operated "old East German trains complete with their original German graffiti." Simon Bone runs a fantastic website devoted to the transit system and alludes to "a substantial secret metro system for government use, similar to the one in Moscow, probably built at the same time as the two public lines." Multiple sources ascribe this to the North Korean government ordering an unusually high number of railcars back when the system was first opened, more than would be needed for the two public lines.

Their Metro map does light up, however, which is more than I can say for anything we've got in our WMATA stations. A Korean guide shows off a station map here, and you can see just under 20 stations spread throughout the two lines (one green and one red). These stations are 100 to 150 meters deep, according to the Chosunilbo newspaper, and have the capacity to double as bunkers in wartime as well as "a second underground world which is different from the subway level" meant as an escape route for North Korean leadership.

Here's a glimpse into the passage from the station entrance to the underground, in which we see many North Korean schoolchildren exit one of the Metro cars:

More videos show what an actual ride on the Pyongyang Metro is like. What stands out to me is that, despite all the illumination in the publicized Metro stations, the trains themselves seem cloaked in darkness in many of the dispatches I've seen. Little electricity lights the interior of the trains. See the video here. I imagine that gloominess cuts down on the amount of casual transit reading that's possible for the average North Korean commuter, wouldn't you say?

The vision of the North Korean Metro is a compelling one, and I'd love to learn more about its workings. Tomorrow, expect Part 2 of this post on North Korean transportation, in which we'll look at their roads, cars, pedestrians, and even streetcars that fill the capital city.

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