Opened in 1973, inaugurated in 1978, and completed in 1985, Pyongyang’s metro system is located 110 metres underground, making it one of the deepest metro systems in the world – and an ideal location as the city’s nuclear bunker. The trains are German Berlin D-types, having been purchased by North Korea after Germany’s move to scrap the carriages in 1999. Despite this, Pyongyang claims the trains were built in North Korea, however, German graffiti is clearly visible on a few of the carriages.
Unlike the London Underground, metro stations in Pyongyang are not named after their geographical location, instead having names set to to communist themes: Comrade, Red Star, Glory, and Complete Victory are just a few. Here are ten photos taken from within the secretive regime’s metro system.
Australian traveller Elliott Davies took photos whilst visiting the Asian hermit state in 2015. He claims he was part of the first group of foreigners to be granted access to all stations across both lines of the Pyongyang Metro. The journey down the escalator takes around four minutes and is accompanied by one of North Korea’s many “revolutionary” anthems and the “noticeable silence” of fellow commuters.
This is Puhung Station, the terminus of the Chollima line. Before 2010, Puhung was one of only two metro stations foreign visitors were allowed into, even with mandatory guides. The other, Yonggwang Station, is just one stop ahead. Both stations are regarded as the most lavish and were the final two to be completed, likely the reason they’re chosen as showcase stations for tourism itineraries. The mural to the back is entitled ‘The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers’.
Centrepiece mosaics adorn each station with each station taking on a unique theme. There is also a central theme – Kim Il-Sung. Tongil Station, Chollima line.
Davies pictured at Kim Il-Sung and I at Kaeson Station. The statue pictured used to be a white marble portrayal of former leader, only being recast in the last decade. Kaeson translates to “Triumph,” a reference to an Arch of Triumph.
Portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are present in every train carriage. By law, they’re framed thicker to the top, angling downwards to oversee those in any room they’re placed. Revolutionary anthems fill each carriage. Commuters don’t speak or interact with one another.
“Here, I’m spotted and receiving a stern look from a KPA General as he lines up to buy a ticket just as any other citizen,” said Davies. In a vase near the attendant, you can spot both a decorative purple Kimilsungia and red Kimjongilia. “I’m unsure why the frosted glass hiding the attendants identity is necessar.” Yonggwang Station, Chollima line.
“Out you go, U.S Military!” and “National Unification” are the translations. Bronze plaques depicting scenes of the Korean War, of national productivity, reunification or victory celebration are standard across most stations. Tongil Station, Chollima line.
Shown above is the entrance to Konguk Station. “We were the first foreign visitors ever allowed into this station,” Davies claims. Foreign tour operators consistently try to extend the boundaries of traditional trips to Pyongyang. Before 2010, just two stations were open to the foreign visitors. Afterwards, it became five, then six, and now today foreign groups have access to nearly all stations. “Another foreign tour guide joined us purely to enter Konguk for the first time; they commemorated the event with polaroid pictures to take out and put in their office.”
The electronic board from the lesser-seen Hyoksin line. Both of these lines are located on the western side of Pyongyang, but due to a major accident that killed over one hundred workers in 1971, the tunnel was never completed.
An example of the grandiose chandeliers inside many of the stations. According to Davies, the extravagance underground is designed to bring “affluence and luxury to the lives of even the lower working class,” serving as inspiration in pursuing national goals. Hwanggumbol, Hyoksin line.
North Korea is a military-first state; expenditures, allocation of resources and national affairs are prioritised towards the interests of Korean People’s Army. The country is proud of having one of the largest active military forces on earth, with both men and women being conscripted into military service for 11 years – the longest of any country. Samhung Station, Hyoksin line.
“We weren’t allowed to purchase anything or take photos. It looked just like the cheap Chinese trinket stalls found beyond North Korea, even selling tasteless mobile covers, specifically for the Chinese ZTE line of phones,” Davies stated. Knock-off sunglasses, fragrances, purses, and earphones were also available to “buy,” as were plastic water pistols, rubber ducks, and bubble blowers. Hwanggumbol Station.
Pictures is a large-scale 360 degree diorama and flat artworks aimed at giving the viewer a ‘feel’ for the Kim Il-Sung-led construction of the Pyongyang Metro in 1973. This diorama exists in the Metro Museum, an entire museum dedicated purely to the opening of the Pyongyang Metro. Inside, there are glass-encased exhibits containing the chair Kim Il-Sung sat in while inspecting construction, the pen he used to sign papers, a microphone he spoke into, a reconstruction of the escalators and even a walk-through recreation of an entire tunnel section.
Photos and exerts from Elliott Davies. You can view more of his work here.