In a Nutshell: I was part of the first ever group of foreigners given access to all stations across both lines of the Pyongyang Metro. This may sound mundane, but the restricted Pyongyang Metro is surely among the most mysterious yet beautiful transit systems on earth. Each of its sixteen stations are unique yet ultra-nationalistic in theme, showcasing North Korea’s revolutionary history, goals and achievements to impressionable commuters through a series of mosaics, murals and monuments. It’s a lavish underground museum long shrouded by foreign conspiracy theory. Sensationalism aside, here is my journey in over sixty photos of the beating heart of Pyongyang, the Pyongyang Metro.
About: I’m Elliott. I’m the tour director at North Korea tour operator Uri Tours. I travel a lot myself, sometimes to the unusual, weird and wacky. Earth Nutshell is where I share my experiences. Interested in visiting North Korea for yourself? Shoot me an email at [email protected].
To set the scene, here’s a small video snippet descending to the platforms with the sound of revolutionary anthems booming from antique loudspeakers central to the escalator…
No one smiles except for the people in the murals.
This is true for the most part, it was tough to get a smile out of North Koreans if the comparison is by our western standard, but frankly it appeared to be cultural — I wouldn’t look into it as a strict determinant sign of ‘happy or sad’ as it was commonplace in any situation. I believe it’s something we can’t really understand without living and breathing their culture for a long period of time — I mean, we even ran into a wedding photo shoot in the Pyongyang Botanical Gardens…it was the couple’s best day of their lives and each posed with a neutral expression for all their photos. It’s tough to get a read on that.
everyone knows that a smile is a natural human reaction. Look at the mosaic on the walls, photos of leaders – it seems that in NK smile is being pitched as something someone has to earn, as a privilege or a sign of divinity. you cant smile while living on earth, because while you’re still here – you have not given all you have to the Country.
I feel so sad for the people I see on these photos.
Thanks for the insight.
Amazing photos. It must have been an incredible experience.
Indeed, I’d be lying if I said that visiting North Korea hasn’t dwarfed some of my other travels. For me, it simply hit the nail on the head. A weird, wacky political journey into a mysterious country shrouded in hearsay. It was good to see for myself, even if it was a stringent tour — I’d followed North Korea closely prior to the visit and was quite familiar with the history, this was invaluable in picking up some of the more interesting finer details. If only I could speak Korean though, that really would have opened it up!
All I see are priceless artworks!
You aren’t wrong, but are you sure you’d like to hang any of these in your lounge room though, Rosenkrantz? 🙂
I’d be happy to hang one of those gorgeous floral mosaic in my flat. 🙂
I really enjoyed the article and pictures. I visited South Korea in the late 80’s. It was great. I can see that one day there will be unification of the north and south. What struck me is the similarities between commuters in North Korea and Taiwan. I was visiting Taiwan last year and they do not interact on train either. Even in Hong Kong, people dont talk much to each other. It was even shocking to see an interaction couple on the Hong Kong subway hugging each other. He appeared to be from Africa and she was Asian. People stared then averted their eyes. I have even witnessed Chinese people getting up to sit elsewhere when a person of color sat next to them on trains, in the subway stations and restaurants.
Interesting, but that isn’t what I heard about China. I used to work with a guy (Jamaican) who traveled a few times to China (as I did). He said that his dark skin made him a subject of curiosity, but not of derision. People would stop him on the streets to take a selfie with him. If he went to a bar, women would come up to him all the time and ask him if he was in the NBA (*LOL*).
I live in Paris and we do not speak to each other in the metro either.
Here in Brazil we don’t interact on train, except with friends.
Great article! Thanks for posting it.
These pictures are fascinating. Thank you for sharing sights that 99.9999% of us will never be able to see with our own eyes.
Thanks for the visit.
And thank you for reading 🙂
Fantastic photos. Just a little side note regarding your thoughts on the way men stand straight with hands behind their back – this is a very typical stance for most older Koreans. I’ve seen countless Koreans (and without generalizing too much, and other Asians) stand in this manner – regardless of whether they are in Seoul, LA, NYC or anywhere else in the world. It’s a rather typical Asian stance for older men.
Hi Sy, thanks for your comment. I think you may be correct, I’ve had others mention this too and the possibility in it being directly linked to military service. I’ve certainly seen it everywhere, but nowhere I’ve visited has it been so glaringly notable as it was while in North Korea. Oh well, just food for thought!
Incredible job! Thank you so much for sharing.
No problem, thanks for reading James!
Thanks for reading!
Amazing! Thank you for a wonderful excursion and very informative article. May your travels always bring you home safe. Godspeed.
That’s the plan, thanks very much! North Korea is genuinely very safe for tourists, I mean, where else in the world are you monitored and babysat every moment of your stay? 😛
I have to agree this was the best a most educational article on DPRK and their train system. It was as close to being there as I will ever get so thank you for providing that tour.
The arms behind the back are likely the result of military conscription. That is a typical ‘at-rest’ position.
Very cool photos, North Korea seems to be a time capsule of 1950’s China, it’s pretty fascinating how selective their integration of new technologies are used.
All the people in the murals are happy and smiling unlike all the real people in the subway
That was a fascinating article: the photos, your descriptions, your story. I was enthralled. I felt like I was actually there.
I love learning about different countries, governments, cultures.
Thank you so much for this.
I can’t wait to see where you go next.
Thanks, great stuff.
I don’t know about the rest of Asia, but Asians I see in NYC (mostly immigrants – usually speaking in Chinese and reading NYC Chinese newspapers and books and in Chinese on their phones) talk about as much as anyone, and friends smile a lot when interacting. I haven’t been there, and I don’t know about China or elsewhere but I understand that litter and graffiti are not seen much in Japan, and obviously they don’t live under the wall to wall state control and state of fear that a North Korean person would. Cultural comparisons between N and S Korea after sixty years of separation would be interesting.
Thanks! I do believe most of that is cultural in North Korea, similar to other nations in Asia where it’s fair to say they’re more reserved overall than the United States example, New York no less. As you can imagine, freedom of expression, outward public displays of emotion and general outgoing behavior is denounced in North Korea, it’s just never been a part of their lives. It always felt strictly business there, metro commuters and those walking in Pyongyang appeared out and about purely to get to where they needed to be, there was no loitering at all, there was very little in the way of ‘distractions’ — zero market freedom has meant there isn’t an abundance of street restaurants, markets, shopping malls, cinemas, fast food outlets or public hangouts to meet friends. Plus, consider the socialist-communist economy, most -are- actually working, some even to maintain the very cleanliness you mentioned. The harsh punishment carried for any graffiti or littering helps, too. Food for thought, when you travel the metro without your friends, or to work, do you talk to strangers? These aspects certainly help generate the lifeless and reserved feel of North Korea you see in photos (and while you’re there). I’m sure it all plays a part.
thank you for your fotos. Something was intriguing me and then confirmed by a lttle search =>
“Since 1998, the Pyongyang metro has used former German rolling stock from the Berlin U-Bahn. There are two different types of rolling stock…”
Amazing. Fascinating. Well done.
Damn! It’s like the Soviet Union from the 1970’s! Absolutely the same as the Soviet underground! The cops and the military on every corner! Poor people ……PS Ёбанные марксисты
Very clean. I like N. Korea. It does an excellent job of keeping its people in line!
Really enjoyed the pictures and captions. Thank you! Totally fascinating!
Thank you for this article. Very intriguing.
Amazing pictures and description. As elaborate as it can get 🙂