A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P10: Trams, subways

It is not uncommon for tram drivers in North Korea to become stuck on the rails as they manipulate the overhead pantograph

A subway station in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea

Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters were struck by the unusually low subways and trams in North Korea.

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As the trip recently taken by a group of Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporters drew to an end, all members were excited at the announcement by tour guide Choe Un Mi that they would take the subway at the end of the last day.

The bus took them to a subway station on Kyeong Hung Street, only 100 meters from Pyongyang Station.

The group members were guided down a deep, time-worn lobby with Choe in the lead and her male counterpart Choe Hong Guk at the back.

All passengers had to buy tickets, with conductors close at hand.

Appearing to exercise some authority over the situation however, Choe whispered something quickly to a female conductor, who immediately let the group through.

The reason was that tourists are not allowed to buy subway tickets, with the dirt-cheap fare a mere five won (less than VND20), translating to more than 1,000 rides for the price of one U.S. dollar.

The group was then taken to a dome where they descended an elevator and went through a long tunnel to reach an underground platform.

Choe signaled to her group to board the 857 subway train, packed with seated, elderly locals and other passengers, which meant it was standing room only.

It took the vehicle less than two minutes to reach the next station, which was also built in same architectural style as the departure station.

Just as in many other places across North Korea, a mural depicting venerated country leader Kim Il-sung occupied the entire wall.

Some locals were also spotted reading news from a bulletin.

According to a diplomat who has lived in Pyongyang for many years, the city’s subway system has two routes, each measuring around 10 kilometers in length. 

The first route has nine stations, which start in Daesong District and close at another station on Saemaul Street in Pyeongcheon District.

This route meanders along the Taedong River and through Mansudae Hill, Kim Il-sung Square and Koryo Hotel.

The second route has eight stations, with the starting point near the zoo in Daesong District and the end point on Kwangbok Street in Mankyeongdae District.

This runs through the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a building that serves as the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, the founder and immortal president of North Korea, and for his son and successor Kim Jong-il.

These two subway lines cross at two stations near the Chinese Embassy in North Korea in Moran District.

Tuoi Tre’s reporters noticed that the map of Pyongyang which they brought home does not feature the subway routes or stations.

“The government does not include the subway routes on maps as the tube is considered a secret bomb shelter that must not be disclosed to the outside world by tourists,” one European diplomat in Pyongyang explained.

According to former Vietnamese Ambassador to North Korea Le Quang Ba, the East Asian nation built and put the underground into operation a long time ago.

“I noticed that the underground here is built at a greater depth compared to the conventional tubes elsewhere. The structure serves both civilian and national defense purposes as people can seek shelter from different kinds of mortar and shells at the lowest level,” he said.


Residents in Pyongyang during a subway ride. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Electricity-powered vehicles

During their stay in the capital of Pyongyang, the Tuoi Tre correspondents rarely spotted electric bikes, other than high-capacity police motorbikes.

Residents mostly walked, rode a conventional bike or used public transport. 

Apart from the subway and buses, a ‘dual’ vehicle running on rails and a ‘single’ wheel-mounted vehicle which travels at a snail’s pace and causes a lot of noise are also available.

A number of newish-looking double-decker buses painted blue and white were also seen on the street.

Some say the buses were imported from China earlier this year, while others claim the vehicles were built by the North Koreans themselves.

Taxis, also a common sight in the capital, are typically clustered at Pyongyang Station and in front of hotels in downtown areas.

One of the Tuoi Tre journalist tried knocking on one of the cabs parked in front of the Koryo Hotel, but the driver could only smile and signal that he would not let the reporter in.

A diplomat revealed that foreigners are generally not allowed to hail taxis in Pyongyang.

Cyclists also share sidewalk space with pedestrians on all streets.

There are a number of streets which also feature a separate, narrow section for cyclists alongside a larger space for pedestrians. 

Locals indiscriminately cross streets, including those without zebra crossings.

Traffic is sparse while sidewalks are crowded with walkers.

It was normal that the reporters would see trams tailing one another in close proximity or with only a few meters between them on different streets, while passengers waited in large numbers at the next stops.

As explained by one diplomat, electricity is not in constant supply in the capital, particularly at night.

“Tram speeds vary greatly depending on the power supply. There are times when they cannot operate at all and cause congestion,” he noted.

City dwellers tend to arrive home from work in the wee hours. The trams remain relatively full even after 11:00 pm.

The time-worn tram system occasionally experiences technical problems with the overhead pantograph, which feeds the vehicle its electrical power, and can screech trams into an involuntary stop.  

According to Pham Ngoc Canh, a veteran Vietnamese office worker in North Korea, most vehicles and machinery in use are built domestically.

During its formative years, more than 20 percent of North Korea’s gross national product was from the industrial sector and the nation took great pride on its well-trained labor force.

This is explained by the fact that the Japanese who exploited the colony of North Korea decades ago built factories for on-site production instead of tapping into raw materials, before sending products or half-finished products to their own country.

North Korea has in this way benefited from Japanese-built factories existing throughout the country, most of them including what was then state-of-the-art technology.

>> A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P4: Visiting North-South border village

>> A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P3: Beer fete

>> A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P2: Immortal leaders

>> A Vietnamese perspective from inside North Korea – P1: First images

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