The Pyongyang Metro serves as a metaphor for North Korean experiences. Many international press and travel writers claim that the Metro is not really used by North Koreans and is just set up as a Potemkin village to showcase the regime’s power and sophistication. They have even alleged that only two stations are operational and that subway riders are paid to circulate through in order to create the appearance of use. Other press accounts focus on the stations’ depth and potential use as bomb shelters and cite the murals as militaristic propaganda.
We visited 6 Metro stations, all operational, and in contrast to these allegations, were exposed to people leading “normal” lives, albeit lives politically constrained and very different from our own. They were commuting to and from their jobs and other activities, rushing to catch the train, reading newspapers and waiting.
Each station’s name is based on themes of the North Korean revolution, such as Prosperity, Reform, Glory and Triumph, rather than geography, and that a mural in each station represents those themes.
The Pyongyang Metro is representative of the larger issue of generalizations and oversimplification distorting the reality of North Korea. We discovered that much of what we thought we knew was wrong. North Korea is neither inaccessible nor dangerous to visit as a Westerner. And rather than depressed and starving, we met many North Koreans celebrating, eating, giggling and chatting on cell phones.
For an article detailing my experiences in North Korea, click here.
For more images on Flickr, click here.