These are photos from the Pyongyang Metro, reportedly one of the deepest metros in the world. 




There are two bisecting lines, and I believe 16 or 17 stations, which ferry several hundred thousand commuters around Pyongyang per day (although stations also serve — I was told — as giant bomb shelters, and rumors persist that the system links vast underground military installations to one another, that additional secret lines exist solely for government use, and that there are secret tunnels below the subway providing escape routes to China).

I was taken on an “extended ride” on one of the lines (five or six stations), but was only allowed to disembark in three. Stations are beautiful, and reminded me very much of the metro in Moscow — eerily beautiful in a faded-glory, Wes Anderson way, cavernous and ornate, but very dimly lit (funny given the lavish chandeliers), and littered with murals, mosaics, carvings, and statues extolling the virtues of NoKo socialist and ideological values, and great leader love — the typical heavy-handed domestic propaganda I’d come to expect and love as a tourist.


Stations are similarly named for ideological themes (my guide told me the subway is a place for “education”) rather than for physical locations, and so are called “Red Star,” “Reunification,” “Victory,” and “Comrade.” And like everywhere else in NoKo (every town, village, city, home, etc.) obligatory, rousing Communist-era music, anthems, and what I can only describe as urgent sounding “talk radio,” plays persistently out of loudspeakers in each station.

While people wait for trains, they are able to read the “news,” which is provided on stands in the stations. As there is zero access to outside information (or rather information other than what the government wants the people to know) the “newspaper” is posted on stands erected in pubic locations like the train station, street corners, the Great People’s Study Hall, and so forth. I am not aware of home delivery.



The subway cars, which I was told were acquired from Germany, are dimly lit wooden cars with heavy doors that commuters manually open and close, and each of course has been retrofitted to include smiling portraits of the two great leaders (the dead ones that matter…not the new one who no one talks about — an aside, one day I asked what year the new one was born — Answer: “To be honest, this question is considered impolite” — followed by uncomfortable guide’s modified “half stink-eye, half smile, let’s move on please” look).


When I rode the subway mid-morning, around 11 a.m., it was packed — tons of Young Pioneers on “field trips” and hundreds of other passengers I couldn’t sort out. In a normal city, you’d of course say the hundreds of other normal people riding are just folks going about their day (running errands, shopping, etc.), but from what I understand, in Pyongyang, (1) the metro is for the more privileged city dwellers, most of whom must be at work by 9 a.m., (2) shops, restaurants, and the like are few and far between, and (3) there is no “let’s do lunch” crowd. I would have probed more, but I wasn’t in the mood that morning, so I let it go when I asked my guide who all the people were and how/why they were on the subway and not working — Answer: “normal people.”

At the first station where I boarded the train, we were alone in the back section of one car. The rest of the train was packed. There was a large group of Young Pioneer boys waiting to embark, but when they saw me, they were way too shy to get on the train near me. One brave soul finally did, but his friends made so much fun of him he caved and jumped off the train — the group chose to forgo the ride versus stand near me. I felt like a pariah.

However, when I boarded a train at another station, my cred as an experienced rider showed through. Allaying the locals’ fear and trepidation at sharing close quarters with me, I squeezed in with the masses. A very kind old woman stood up to offer me her seat, which I of course politely declined, but the momentary confusion of “no you sit, no you sit,” provoked laughter and smiles from the people around us, and thus made my “Shit I think might be real” list.

Postscript: I’ve lightened these photos so you can see the details. The metro is so dimly lit, without such lightening, you wouldn’t see as much.