By Jeffrey Marlow, December 4, 2013
The entrance to the Puhoong station, under the watchful eye of a guard.
The platform of Puhoong Station, one of the showpiece stations build in the 1980s.
Hundreds of feet beneath the world’s most insular capital city lies a
network of cavernous rooms, adorned with stone pillars and grandiose
mosaics. This is the Pyongyang Metro, one of North Korea’s most
ambitious public works projects.
For public transportation infrastructure aficionados – and you know
who you are – the Pyongyang Metro is an eagerly sought grail; for the
rest of us, it’s a peek into the daily commute of the North Korea’s
privileged capital-dwellers. Commuting is the dominant expression of
public life in North Korea, a country with few restaurants and stores,
and even fewer civic gatherings. On the streets, cyclists and
pedestrians far outnumber cars, as people move in stark silence between
their residence and place of work.
The eerie silence and sense of purposeful movement extend
underground. On a recent Thursday morning, hundreds of passengers (Lunch
breakers? Unemployed? Conscripts? All jobs should begin by 10 AM) rode
the #1 Chollima line through central Pyongyang.
The underground stations are ornate but dimly lit: patrons squint to
read posted newspapers while patriotic music echoes faintly across the
stone floor. Most of the 16 public stations (there are rumors of secret,
government-use-only networks) were built in the 1970s, but the most
grandiose halls – Puhoong and Yonggwang – were constructed in 1987.
Mosaics and metallic reliefs extolling the virtues of North Korean
workers and landscapes line the walls.
The subway cars were acquired from Germany, and despite a green and
red makeover, the remnant graffiti scratched into windows and paneling
belies their past lives. And as with every other public and private
space throughout the country, portraits of past leaders Kim Il-Sung and
Kim Jong-Il look down from the ends of each car, smiling and
The photo gallery above (go to website to see more photos) offers a look inside the Pyongyang Metro system during a recent Young Pioneers tour; see here for a video walk-through of the Yonggwang station, showing the ebb and flow of the mid-day commute.