May 31, 2023

All Aboard the Juche Express

Should anyone be surprised that the Dear Leader turned dearly departed aboard a train carriage? A somewhat outdated mode of transport, forever travelling the same route where the passengers’ conditions are predetermined according to class: in many ways, North Korea is a train. Certainly, transit by locomotive is one of the few means by which foreigners will see, albeit in snatches, the real DPRK.

In November 2003, the real DPRK appeared to resemble a rather dour water colour as I gazed out of a ‘soft sleeper’ carriage en route to the border city of Sinuiju.  North Korea in winter is a study in dun browns, beige and muddy yellows. The farmland I saw in those colours was bristly and unkempt, broken by thickets of spruce and juniper trees. The 20th century intruded fleetingly, the 21st century not at all. On the roads sliding past, transport was largely on foot or by bicycle. A photograph I managed to snap-surreptitiously-showed an antiquated Russian truck packed with civilians, skinny and threadbare.