Our first day in Pyongyang was a busy one. Our first stop was a trip along the Pyongyang Metro, visiting 3 stations. In the bus on the way there, Un Ha gave us a few stats about it, along with a few more hints and tips about etiquette in the city:
- Don’t screw up and throw out papers/brochures with the Leaders’ faces on them.
- No walking around by yourself. This was framed as a language issue – if there were any problems, you can’t rely on someone being around that can speak English to get you out of trouble.
- No close-up photos without getting permission first.
- No Bibles to be given out and/or “accidentally” left around the place.
- The metro was built predominately in the 1970’s, with 2 lines and 17 stations. The stations we were about to see were built later, in the 1980’s.
- It only costs 5 yuan (about half a cent) for unlimited travel. I was slightly envious about THAT!
- The Metro is the deepest in the world, at 100m deep. Because it’s so deep, the temperature remains at a constant temperature all year round.
- Trains arrive every 5 minutes and carry 400,000 people a day.
- The names of the stations we went to are Glory and Triumph stations. I can’t remember the name of the third one.
When we arrived we went down the escalator. It took AGES! On reading up about it after I got home, it takes between 3 and 4 minutes to get down to the subway from the top. It’d be a long time if you were running late for work.
Here is Un Ha showing us the way people can navigate the intricate network. You press the button of the station you want to go to and light show you the way to go. She was very proud of it.
The Metro was definitely built on a grand scale. After coming straight from Beijing, with all of the advertising in the stations everywhere you looked, including moving adverts that travelled along outside the train with you, the decor was vastly different. You can see the tiled mural at the back of the staircase, with the elaborate lights. This was only a hint of what was to come. Marble and propaganda everywhere…
Here is a long shot of Puhung station, the first one on our tour.
I’ll unpack a couple of details. Here are newspapers on display for commuters to read. We got our guides to translate the headlines and we learned that today was the 20th? 30th? anniversary of Kim Jong Il being ‘elected’ to lead some important committee or other. (Apologies. It was an action-packed day and my notes were written early next morning.) Kim Jong Il is the second of the three leaders that have run North Korea since the end of WWII and he was the father of the current leader.
Even though this political appointment in the newspaper happened decades ago, it was still cause for celebration here. The cult of personality that the Kim family has managed to preserve for 70 years was starting to make itself felt as we went around.
This mural is entitled: ‘The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers’. They’ve been careful to spread their net wide with the occupations they’ve depicted – nice to see 2 whole women there! It’s not really evident from my photo, but Kim Il Sung’s face is much more realistic and detailed than the workers’ faces around him. This is clearly designed to motivate the commuters on their way to work each day.
When there’s a picture or statue of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il at the end of the platform, the murals have the people enthusiastically facing it. Everywhere we went, the old-style propaganda was everywhere. But the workmanship was beautiful. I can’t begin to imagine how long these murals must have taken to make.
The stations were pretty quiet, especially considering all of the people that were there. The screeching of train brakes and the echoing of sound bouncing off all the hard surfaces all played their part, but in general the commuters didn’t seem to talk a lot among themselves. Then again, we train travellers at 6:30AM in Melbourne aren’t exactly a chatty bunch either!
Our first ride on a train. I wasn’t expecting the pictures of the two leaders in every carriage. From my reading before I came here, I knew that every house, every classroom and every government building has the pictures in them and that they’re always the same. Each homeowner has the responsibility to look after them and make sure the pictures are always clean and unblemished. I didn’t expect to see them on the train, however! Apparently, they’re hung to be angled slightly down, so as to appear to be looking at the passengers. Not creepy at all…
The trains are very old. I was reading that they’re old East German trains that were going to be scrapped until the DPRK bought them.
Just before we pulled out of the station I took this picture. The murals are all constructed with these small tiles. It’s incredible work – some of these murals on the stations are 80 metres long!
The next station – the lights are meant to look like fireworks. The decorations were very different on this station.
These murals were all about the beauty of the reborn Pyongyang. The original city was bombed into oblivion by the US during the Korean War, so this station is a celebration of what they’d been able to achieve since then. The very traditionally-roofed building on the left foreground is the Grand People’s Study House, which we’d be looking at, (and I’d be teaching at!) later that day.
The stations were scrupulously clean. There was no litter here or on the streets and there was absolutely no graffiti anywhere. In 2011, graffiti denouncing General Kim Jong-Il was found in a college not far from the town’s centre. This sent Pyongyang into literal lockdown for 3 days, the Government refusing to sell train tickets until the culprit was found. That’s a pretty stern inducement to keep your spray cans of paint to yourself…
Even the pillars are decorative. The ornate surroundings are a way to bring luxury into the lives of even the lowliest of workers and to make them feel pride in how the country is developing. With all of the murals and sculptures constantly showing the people all pulling together as one, it’s easy to see how this attitude has become engrained in the people’s psyche. It’s been a constant reinforcement for 70 years.
Apologies for the fuzzy shot. I was still trying to perfect my sneaky photo skillz. They didn’t seem to like having their photo taken.
Kim Jong Il was the leader being immortalised at this station. Here’s James, channeling him. This is before he got the Kim Jong Un haircut a few days later.
There’s our two friends, smiling at us over the top of the passengers. The train on this ride was a little more crowded. Sometimes people would smile back at you, other times not. Marjo from Finland is in the red and white top. We were scattered throughout the carriage. Not many people were speaking except for us, and we were trying to take discreet shots of the locals without being offensive.
I really like the expression on the man behind us. (Photo by James McArdle)
Our last station was Victory station, which comes out at the Victory Arch I was walking under the day before on the marathon. This golden man is Kim Il Sung, their first and only President. Even though he’s been dead for nearly 30 years he’s still the President of North Korea and will be in perpetuity. The Koreans absolutely adore him and credit him with bringing them out from virtual slavery to the Japanese, into a country that is free and independent and is a player on the world stage. They get emotional when talking about him – you seriously wouldn’t want to disrespect him. For a country that says it has no religion, the regard the Korean people have for the Kim family is the closest thing to a religion that I’ve ever seen.
Another worker. I like her socks and shoes.
In between trains we had the station briefly to ourselves. Un Ha is in the pink coat, with James and Wally wandering around with their cameras. You can see how large the station is, especially considering that there was quite a bit of space behind me. Our voices and footsteps were echoing.
The banner in this mural reads:“Hurray to our General Kim Il-Sung, the outstandingly wise leader!” Look at the little children running to him, the golden statue, with their flowers…
There are about 2,500 tourists that come to North Korea every year. We have to be on a tour and of course, every tour comes to Pyongyang. But we’re still enough of a novelty on the streets for people to stare at us.
Then we made the long trek upwards again.
As we were leaving, Helen said to me, “See those metal things on the walls? They’re blast doors. If there’s ever a nuclear incident, all of the people can race down here and the doors will shut to protect them.” I had to turn around to take the photo; we were already past them. It makes sense to use the place as a nuclear fallout shelter – the Metro is one of the deepest in the world so you’d assume you’d be pretty safe.
As we got out onto the street, we looked past the Victory Arch and there was a couple of hundred women doing some massed dancing. We walked across the carpark to see them.
Look at the dresses! Some are incredibly ornate. The music was playing from portable speakers and the women were all in big circles, dancing as one. It looked amazing.
Most were wearing high heels or court heels at the very least, but James nudged me and pointed to one woman. “Look!” he said. “She ‘s cheating. She’s got runners on!”
At first we thought they were practicing for the big birthday celebrations for Kim Il Sung that were due to be held on our last day in the city, but it turned out that they were actually celebrating that anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s appointment that I was telling you about earlier. Remember the newspaper report?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never yet put my glad rags on and gone dancing in the middle of the morning to celebrate a political appointment made a couple of decades before. It seems as if there’s a few differences between here and the West. We were about to go to the War Museum, where we were about to get a very clear lesson on the differences in perspective between us all. Stay tuned…