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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
Two tour companies, Pyongyang-Travel and Koryo Tours, have conducted the most extensive tours of the Pyongyang Metro system to date after visiting stations in April that were previously off limits to foreign visitors.
Tourists were previously only allowed to visit a small number of stations on one of Pyongyang’s two Metro lines, but members of a Koryo Tours group were able to visit all but one of the stations on the Chollima line on April 18. Pyongyang-Travel, another company specializing in niche interest tours of the DPRK, impressively conducted an even more extensive tour, visiting all but three stations on both the Chŏllima and Hyŏksin lines between April 3 and April 10.
“Normally its only 5 stops for tourists, but we could also ride on the other line and take the Chŏllima line as a whole,” Cristoph Stephan, the Director of Pyongyang-Travel told NK News.
Daniel Levitsky, a tour guide with Koryo Tours, has been leading tours of the Pyongyang Metro for years but says he was still impressed when disembarking at the previously unseen stations.
“We’ve ridden parts of this line for many years and have of course seen pictures of other stations in books and so on … It is of course different when you see them with your own eyes,” Levitsky told NK News.
“It was fun and very interesting to see something so familiar and yet so new all at once,” Levitsky added.
“We travelled in regular traffic as chartering is almost impossible”
Tours of the Pyongyang Metro are conducted during regular commuting hours so the groups travelled alongside Pyongyang’s locals on these unprecedented tours. According to Stephan, the local commuters did not seem at all surprised by their presence.
“We travelled in regular traffic as chartering is almost impossible. We really took the trains and were part of the traffic which is even better I think. The locals were smiling at us and were not afraid, it seemed to them nothing special that foreigners were there,” Stephan said.
The two tour groups had expected to be able to see every station on the lines they were scheduled to travel on, but there were some unexpected restrictions. Stephan said that it had not been possible to visit three of the metro stops. Two were ‘undergoing renovations’ whilst another was not open to the tour groups for unknown reasons.
Koryo Tours were also told that they would not be able to disembark or take pictures at the Sungri (Victory) Station on the Chŏllima Line due to construction work, though Levitsky said there was no work being conducted at the time.
“They said it was under renovation, but it was clearly open and being used,” Levitsky said.
Construction of the Pyongyang Metro began in the 1960’s and was closely modeled on the Moscow Metro, both in terms of its architecture and functions for domestic propaganda.
An official Pyongyang Metro information pamphlet published by North Korea in 1994 says that the Metro’s function is not solely for transport means, “but also the place for ideological education”.
The underground stations contain an extensive collection of state artwork such as murals, mosaics, carvings and statues, that depict a variety of socialist and ideological scenes.
The station names themselves are also ideologically rather than geographically based with names such as “Red Star” (Pulgubyol), “Tongil” (Reunification) and “Victory” (Sungri).
Both Pyongyang and Koryo Tours were able to disembark and take pictures of the ideological artwork on display and were impressed with their quality and content.
“The stations are really beautiful and as the other known stations have lots of mosaics. The Konsol (“Construction”) station and the Hwanggumbol (“Golden Fields”) stations are really beautiful and spacious, it is definitely worth seeing,” Stephan said.
Koryo Tours’ Daniel Levitsky was particularly impressed with the artwork at Tongil (Reunification) Station, describing an “intricate mosaic” that depicted North and South Koreans embracing and celebrating unification while former leader and founder Kim Il Sung looked down from above.
“It was very heavy-handed symbolism of course, but exactly the kind that visitors expect, and its very well done there indeed,” Levitsky said.
Since its opening ceremony on September 5 1973 however, the Pyongyang Metro has been the subject of continual myth, rumor and speculation.
It is widely believed that the Metro system was built for the purposes of linking military installations, transporting high-level officials in and out of Pyongyang in the event of a crisis or that it was a facade created to convey technological advancement.
A defector and former Secretary of the North Korean Workers Party, Hwang Jang-yop, told a Seoul based radio station in 2009 that Kim Jong Il had developed a network of secret tunnels below the subway network to provide an escape route to China should conflict break out.
The Pyongyang Metro is already one of the deepest underground train systems in the world operating at up to 150 meters below the surface and Hwang said the secret tunnels are even further underground.
Having been asked to tour the Metro system by a Senior Security Guard, Hwang said he was able to visit a separate line below the Metro level at a depth of almost 300 meters.
“About 300m below ground in Pyongyang, there exists a second underground world which is different from the subway level,” Hwang was quoted as saying in the Chosun Ilbo, adding “they were so elaborately built that a visiting Soviet military delegation marveled at them.”
“The Pyongyang Metro is one of the deepest underground train systems in the world”
An article published on Chosun.com (since removed) also claimed that a command and control center exists “with state-of-the-art communications equipment and billeting facilities, and a host of 10-ton trucks including Soviet-made Zils and Japanese Isizus are kept in the square to transport troops and arms,” the article said.
The article also claimed that the command and control center lies in the middle of an underground bunker, comparable in size to Kim Il Sung square, which can hold up to 100,000 people and is the stage for mass gathering and military parades.
Despite there being limited evidence to confirm these rumors, they still persist, even on the most recent tours of the underground system.
“We have all heard these claims, we’ve even had people make these claims while standing on the platform of a station not normally visited. Many people believe that the people on the metro are actors, that it’s all put on for tourists, etc. Our job is to try and show as much as possible and that does include exploding a few myths,” Levitsky said.
The most recent allowances to tour companies in exploring this previously unseen part of North Korea follow a trend of niche travel experiences afforded to foreign tour groups.
Highly specialized tours for transport enthusiasts are becoming increasingly common in the DPRK and UK-based Juche Travel Services have been conducting specialized aviation tours of North Korea’s Airliner fleet since 2012.
“I think definitely they are going to open up more for tourists”
Pyongyang Travel’s tours also largely cater to these types of niche enthusiasts. Stephan believes the recent access granted to the Pyongyang Metro is further evidence that North Korea are realizing the market opportunities in these highly specialized areas of tourism.
“I think definitely they are going to open up more for tourists and they do see that there is a market for those transport enthusiasts,” Stephan told NK News.
“They (North Korea) have a lot to offer; old and beautiful equipment that runs nowhere else in the world, but still (exists) in Pyongyang and they realize they can attract tourists by showing them these means of transport,” he added.
Although both Pyongyang-Travel and Koryo Tours have scheduled further tours of the Pyongyang Metro that will again disembark at previously restricted stations, it is perhaps premature to say the Metro is now fully accessible to outsiders.
“Its an overstatement to suggest that this is now completely normal, in fact just today on our Train Tour we took our groups to extra stations than usual but this was a special arrangement for our groups, and other visitors couldn’t get off there, so it isn’t fully open to visitors,” Levitsky told NK News from Pyongyang on Thursday.
Featured Image: Koryo Tours