Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Inside North Korea's colorful, strange Pyongyang Metro and traffic, Part 2

December 23, 2011 - 11:15 AM
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No traffic lights. (Photo: flickr/johnpavelka)

Yesterday, in light of Kim Jong Il's recent death, I took a look at the deep, colorful, and potentially dysfunctional Metro of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Today I'd like to examine another dimension of how people get around the city and talk about what it means to travel across the surface streets. The 3.2 million people or so people who live in the city have to get around somehow, and Pyongyang's transportation is unique in its own right, with countless pedestrians, above-ground transit systems, and several streets and cars befitting, more or less, our idea of a post-industrial power, at least on first glance. Despite many rumored and reported problems, North Korea maintains a transportation system in Pyongyang that appears modern enough. Much of the country's wealth is concentrated here, and as I mentioned yesterday, it's intended to be a showcase for the country's achievements.

Very few paved roads line the country, however, according to the CIA World Factbook — of the 25,554 kilometers of roadways, only 724 kilometers are paved. Pyongyang would seem to have the most traffic of any North Korean city, although even during rush hour on a national holiday, there are never all that many cars. One journalist who wrote a book on North Korea estimates that there are only 20,000 to 25,000 passenger cars in all of DPRK, "the ultimate symbol of the prosperity of high officials" and kept scarce, according to Bloomberg.

See the streets of the capital from a city bus and from a tour-driven minivan in these next two videos:

The man in the next video below, guided by the government in this minivan, notes the many pedestrians visible in his guided tour of the Pyongyang streets. "Everybody walks," he says.

The subway, as he understands it, is only partly functional, and the lines for buses are incredibly long. He says there are, in his experience, rarely many cars on the road and that North Korea doesn't possess street lights but instead employs woman who guide intersections with whistles.

Watch the street travel in his video here and then, see what the Korean traffic cops look like — they occupy a white-outlined circle in the middle of the intersections, it appears, and wear blue uniforms and white caps. Their movements are remarkably rigid, and their arms stretch out to guide vehicles. They shift about face eerily fast.

Transit is not limited to Metro and bus, however. The city even offers its own version of a streetcar system, built in the last two decades. Watch a brief video and glimpse of the North Korean trolleys here. Elements like streetcars serve as a good reminder of the lived reality of North Korean commutes for countless people. Despite the propaganda and cult-like worship of leaders, the country still has many citizens who need to get from one place to another. That reality never changes.

Although walking appears to be a common way that people get around the capital, biking is rarely seen. "Bicycles were apparently banned in Pyongyang until relatively recently," Simon Bone reports. The Korea Times says the law changed in the early '90s but it's still hard to imagine a commuting environment in which bikes were against the law. Don't expect Great Leader Bikeshare coming any time soon.

Yet North Korea does have its own airline, Air Koryo. Flight attendants move in the unsurprising colors of red and white, as you can see in this video, which also shows a rather meager-looking meal and flight reading materials provided to a passenger. The country has 79 airports, according to the CIA World Factbook, 37 with paved runways and 42 without.

Pedestrians, streetcars, buses, cars, and perhaps even a bike or two — here's what to expect of Pyongyang's surface transportation. With Kim Jong Il dead, the country may open more to other countries in the coming years, and we may learn more dimensions of how these transportation systems operate. I hope we do. My own fascination with the country has risen significantly in recent days and months, and rarely has a global situation struck me as more complicated and bizarre. To commute in North Korea is to participate in any number of jumbled, half-working systems, not entirely unlike many cities including D.C. that struggle with shortcomings like broken escalators, gridlock, and busted friction rings. Consider this a window into an unusual country's unusual commuting life.

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