the pyongyang metro

Built to link secret underground military facilities, the Pyongyang Metro is nevertheless an important part of the transport infrastructure in the capital of North Korea (officially, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK). There is evidence that it includes secret government-only lines, although the extent of these, if they exist, is unknown. Its station architecture is among the most attractive in the world. However, relatively little is known about the Metro outside the country, as few visitors are able to investigate the system. In recent years North Korea’s economic crisis has affected Metro operation, and service has apparently been reduced significantly. Yet in recent years replacement trains have been bought from Germany, and plans still exist to expand the system, particularly in the direction of other military command posts.

You just can't lick it

Stamps issued in 1974 to commemorate the opening of the Pyongyang Metro the previous year


The Pyongyang Metro consists of two public lines, north-south Chollima (named for a mythical flying horse, the Korean Pegasus) and east-west Hyoksin (Renovation); there are also believed to be other undisclosed lines for government use. The total length of the public system is probably around 22.5 km, of which the Chollima line is about 12 km and the Hyoksin line about 10.

Like most North Korean statistics, this figure may be inaccurate, as it has been reported since the mid-1980s, and may not include the nearly 2 km between Ponghwa and Puhung, opened in 1987; if this is so the system is approximately 24 km. Some sources claim 34 km, of which the Chollima line is 14 km and the Hyoksin line 20 km, however this figure may be arrived at by adding the original 24 km mentioned above and a planned 10-km extension to Mangyongdae, and thus likely does not refer to the system’s current length.

The lines are entirely underground, but there is a surface-level depot for each line, at Kwangbok at the western terminus of Hyoksin and at Pulgunbyol, at the northern end of Chollima. Although the lines are largely in deep tunnel, they closely follow the route of Pyongyang’s main streets — Rakwon and Pipa streets (Hyoksin) and Podunamu, Kaeson, Sungni, and Yonggwang streets (Chollima).

More than in most capital cities, public transit plays a very important role in Pyongyang. No official data from North Korea can reliably be verified, but it is claimed that the city has a population of more than 1.7 million, more than twice the population when the Metro opened (650 000 in 1973, according to North Korean figures). (In fact, no one, except perhaps a few North Korean officials, really knows what the population of Pyongyang is; estimates range from around a million to as high as 3.4 million.) The city has essentially no private automobiles, and there are thought to be only a few hundred thousand motor vehicles in the whole of North Korea (population thought to be around 22 million). Bicycles were apparently banned in Pyongyang until relatively recently. As a result, buses, trams, trains, and trolleybuses are frequently crowded, and flat-bed trucks often carry passengers.


The Pyongyang Metro is entirely in deep tunnel under the city. It was built by the Korean People’s Army, largely with manual labor, including many prisoners. Construction details are a state secret. Supposedly the project was instigated by Kim Jong Il in 1966 while on a visit to Beijing, where construction of that city’s subway was underway; it should be noted that many important projects were retrospectively attributed to Kim Jong Il after he became Kim Il Sung’s heir apparent. Work began on both lines in 1968 with Soviet and Chinese help.

The Chollima line started running on 6 September 1973 (there appears to have been an official opening on 18 September), and was extended from Ponghwa to Puhung on or about 10 April 1987. The Hyoksin line opened in October 1975, from Hyoksin to Rakwon, and was extended from Hyoksin to Kwangbok in September 1978. (Some sources say that its original endpoints were Kwangmyong and Hwanggumbol, and it was extended at both ends, to Rakwon and Kwangbok, in 1985.)

The Chollima line was originally planned to cross under the Taedong river, but a tunnel is said to have collapsed at Ponghwa station in 1971, killing more than 100 people. Further attempts to build the line under the river were apparently abandoned, and thereafter the line was re-routed towards Puhung; Ponghwa station seems to have been re-sited. This section of the line, from Ponghwa to Puhung, is known as the Mangyongdae line, as it leads in the direction of Mangyongdae, the birthplace of North Korea’s first Great Leader, Kim Il Sung. It is likely that presenting the “Mangyongdae Line” as a project to honor the GL provided a face-saving reason to explain why the line was heading westwards, rather than south of the Taedong, as had been expected, even if in reality there were never enough resources to built a Mangyongdae Line that actually went to Mangyongdae. It probably also explains why the two Mangyongdae stations are the most elaborate, as Kim Il Sung’s birthplace is, in the North Korean ideology, the country’s holiest site.

However, if a Metro line to Mangyongdae is ever built, it will be not the Mangyongdae Line but a a 10-km, four- or six-station extension of the Hyoksin Line, further north. Although the proposed route is already served by a tram line, and an extension to Kim Il Sung’s birthplace from the existing Mangyongdae Line would probably be easier, the real reason for the extension is presumably to connect to the country’s underground Nuclear Guard Watch Post, also in Mangyongdae, to the rest of the military facilities joined by the Metro tunnels. This extension was originally scheduled for completion in October 2000; it remains to be seen if it will ever be built. Longer-term plans call for a third north-south line that crosses the river on a bridge, which would create a subway system according to the typical Soviet pattern (three lines meeting in a triangle in the city center).

secret government lines

Documents passed to Changchun Car Company, which built the original subway cars, indicate that Pyongyang has a substantial secret metro system for government use, similar to the one in Moscow, probably built at the same time as the two public lines. Construction details of the secret lines are unknown, but defector reports corroborate large-scale tunnel and underground construction in the city. At least one undocumented tunnel from Mansudae Palace to the airport north of the city is thought to exist, and may house a Metro line. The extent of the secret system can be guessed by the number of trains purchased from Changchun, more than twice the minimum number needed to run the public Metro system. (See Trains.) Even allowing for spares, and extra capacity for more frequent service, the indications point to a system that may be larger than the two lines known to exist.

One intriguing line of speculation is that the rumors of a tunnel collapse may have been spread to conceal the construction of a military tunnel under the Taedong, which would be of immense strategic significance, especially if it could be kept secret. Several Soviet-bloc subway lines were planned or built largely for military reasons (such as the sub-Vistula line planned for Warsaw in the 1950s, but later cancelled during the era of détente). The collapse is said to have killed several high-ranking military officers and their families; if this is true, one can only guess what they might have been doing in an unfinished subway tunnel.

military use

Apart from the secret lines, the Pyongyang Metro was designed as part of a broader military system of tunnels and underground installations. The stations are very deep underground and are fitted with multiple (usally triple) heavy blast doors, indirect linking tunnels, and other features that imply military purposes or service as emergency shelters. At least one western visitor has said he participated in an air raid drill in which he was sent down into the Metro along with large numbers of Koreans. Tunnels are claimed to be as far as 120 meters below the surface (150 m under some hills), and stations are said to be between 22 and 100 meters below street level (Puhung is thought to be deepest); even if these figures are exaggerated, the system may well be the deepest in the world. However, this has its drawbacks, as the Chinese-made escalators are believed to consume an uneconomical amount of electricity, and because journeys necessitate several hundred meters of additional travel down to and up from the station platforms.

In the 1994 book Crisis In Korea (SPI Books, New York), Yossef Bodansky writes:

A recent defector from construction Unit 583 reported that the construction of “underground airstrips and underground naval bases” as well as other military facilities has been expanding markedly since 1991 on the basis of lessons learned from the US bombing of Iraq and in anticipation of an imminent war with the US. The DPRK also completed a new “wartime operations command post” sonme 100 meters below the Sosong District of Pyongyang, from where some 5000 members of the elite will run the anticipated nuclear war with the West. This new super-bunker is connected through a myriad of tunnels, including the entire Pyongyang subway system, all hardened to withstand nuclear strikes.

At least two major military facilities are linked to the Metro system. Apart from the wartime command post, located near Rakwon station, there is an underground road that connects Kwangmyong station to Sunan Airport and to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. The following article, written by Lee Kyo Kwan in, describes these facilities:

Mammoth Underground Square and Road in Pyongyang

The Pyongyang subway has two generally unknown facilities: a mammoth “underground square” in preparation against war, and an “underground road” between the subway stations, linking the Mount Kumsu Memorial Palace and the Sunan Airport in the suburbs of Pyongyang.

The underground square, built as a bunker command post for the Supreme Command of the People’s Armed Forces and a space for storing manpower and equipment during a war, is located in Anhak-dong, near the Rakwon Subway Station, famous for the Central Zoo at the foot of Mount Taesong. The square is said to be comparable in area to the Kim Il Sung Square, which can accommodate a rally of over 100 000 people.

The underground square is learned to have been constructed by the General Military Engineer Corps of the People’s Armed Forces in the 1970s when the second phase of the Pyongyang subway was built, linking the five stations of Hyoksin, Chonsung, Samhung, Kwangmyong and Rakwon. The command post in the underground square is said to be replete with state-of-the-art communications equipment and billeting facilities, and a host of 10-ton trucks including Soviet-made Zils and Japanese Isuzus are kept in the square to transport troops and arms to be shipped by the subway under an emergency.

The underground road between subway stations connects the late national founder and president Kim Il Sung’s palace and the current Mount Kumsu Memorial Palace, with the Sunan Airport. It was said to have been built in case Kim Il Sung had to be evacuated by plane. The Mount Kumsu Memorial Palace is connected to the Kwangmyong Subway Station. The underground road is said to have been maintained even after the death of president Kim Il Sung in 1994 under the judgment that it can be of use in the event the North Korean military leadership, headed by Kim Jong Il, should need to move to Sunan Airport from the underground square in the case of a war.

There are also military reasons for the proposed extension of the Metro system to Mangyongdae. If completed, the extended Hyoksin line would run under Kwangbok Street, towards Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. Kwangbok is a long street lined with large apartment blocks that already possesses a tram line. However, the metro extension would also reach both Kim Il Sung Military University and the country’s Nuclear Watch Guard Post in Mangyongdae, which was built in 1993. (Source: North Korea Special Weapons Guide.)

One further area of speculation is the extent to which tunneling techniques learned during construction of the Pyongyang Metro were put to use in digging the tunnels under the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. South Korea has discovered at least four such tunnels, built to facilitate an invasion or infiltration from the north. The Metro system appears to have been built at least in part by blasting, a labor-intensive process also used to contruct the so-called Third Invasion Tunnel, discovered by South Korea under the DMZ near Panmunjom. (Scroll down, to Museum, for a North Korean illustration of construction.)


The Metro has a total of 17 stations. Kwangmyong station is closed, however, allegedly because it is connected to the enormous Kumsusan Memorial Palace (satellite images show that, including its 200-by-400-meter forecourt, it is significantly larger than the 150 000-capacity May Day Stadium), where Kim Il Sung lies in state and Kim Jong Il presumably lives. There are likely military reasons for the closure, as Kumsusan Palace — like Saddam Hussein’s “presidential palaces” — is presumed to contain important military facilities, including a secret metro tunnel. There is an average distance of about 1500 meters between stations, similar to Moscow, and significantly more than in metros such as London or Paris.

The station are named after themes of the North Korean revolution, and, uniquely among world metro systems, bear no relation to geography (however, in some instances nearby streets, such as Yonggwang, Kwangbok, and Hyoksin, share these names). Stations are decorated with murals reflecting these ideas. For example, Kwangbok (“rebirth”) shows scenes from the forest around Mount Paekdu, where it is claimed Kim Il Sung had a “secret guerilla camp” from which he led the anti-Japanese struggle. It is also said to be the birthplace of North Korea’s second Great Leader, Kim Jong Il; thus the Paekdu area is the place of Korea’s rebirth. Kaeson (“triumphant return”) is claimed as the location of Kim Il Sung’s speech when he returned to Pyongyang after singlehandedly liberating the country from the Japanese; the station displays the eager crowds listening to his words. Konsol (“construction”) is lined with murals showing the city being rebuilt after the Korean War (known in North Korea as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War), while the pillars in Tongil (“reunification”) illustrate “our nation’s longing for the unification of the fatherland.”

The stations are:

Chollima (Pegasus) Line
from north to south
Hyoksin (Renovation) Line
from east to west
Pulgunbyol (Red Star)Rakwon (Paradise)
Jonu (Comrade) Transfer stationKwangmyong (Brightness) Closed
Kaeson (Triumphant Return)Samhung (Three Origins)*
Tongil (Reunification)Jonsung (Triumph) Transfer station
Sungni (Victory)Hyoksin (Renovation)
Ponghwa (Signal Fire)Konsol (Construction)
Yonggwang (Glory)Hwanggumbol (Golden Fields)
Puhung (Rehabilitation)Konguk (National Foundation)
Kwangbok (Restoration)

* To clarify, the Three Origins are Kim Il Sung’s three goals of education: knowledge, morality, and sport. As the Korean Central News Agency helpfully explains, “A country can thrive when pupils grow up to be knowledgeable, morally impeccable, and physically strong.”

Trains travel on the right, and are dispatched by platform staff, all or most of whom are female; each station originally had an average of 15 staff, who are reported to have lived together in military-style barracks. At least in the early years, Metro trains had two drivers. There is, of course, no advertising, but current newspapers are displayed on boards on the platforms in some stations.

One wan won

The standard mass-transit fare was 10 jon for all journeys until the 2002 devaluation (“currency reform”), which abolished the jon. The fare was increased to 1 won, paid with metal tokens like the one above; the fare has more recently been raised again, to 5 won. Entry to the system is controlled by barriers such as the ones below:

Jumping the barrier inadvisable

Maps of the system are not widely distributed, and physical locations of stations are not marked on street maps; the brochure “The Pyongyang Metro” does not include one. Some stations appear to be far more elaborate than others; very few foreigners are allowed to visit anything other than Puhung and Yonggwang, by all accounts the two most attractive stations. It has been claimed that the chandeliers at Puhung weigh four tons each.

As originally planned, The Pyongyang metro normally operated in four-car single units with 5-7 minute headway. During peak hours headway was as low as 2 minutes. Hours of service were 5:30 - 23:30. However, the Metro likely now only runs at certain hours of the day, essentially as a commuter rail service (in the mornings and evenings on workdays); reports exist of peak service using only 3-car trains at 7-minute intervals, resulting in severe overcrowding. As an economy measure, the entire service is said to close on the first Monday of each month, and perhaps more often. Station lights are dim or switched off altogether, and many sources report that trains in tunnels are often caught by power cuts, forcing passengers to wait in the darkness, sometimes for hours.

Indeed, whether the Metro is in regular service at all is not entirely certain. Practically the only non-North Korean eyewitnesses to Metro use are the visitors given the showcase ride on the system.

However, a recent focus of North Korean propaganda has been the country’s unreliable electricity supply, and visiting journalists and dignitaries are often presented with a short power cut, which is generally followed by a prepared speech by their Korean minders about the need for energy independence (ie, North Korea’s nuclear program). Although electricity has indeed long been rationed in the country, horror stories about electricity shortages should be treated with skepticism, especially when they come from official sources, which otherwise tend to avoid any discussion of the country’s problems.

showcase visits

The Pyongyang Metro is a stop on any trip to Pyongyang, and all visitors are shown it, including (South) Korean Presiden Kim Dae Jung and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Inevitably, they are taken for a one-station ride, between Puhung and Yonggwang stations, accompanied by their North Korean guides. A handful of well-dressed Korean passengers also board the train.

These two stations are the most attractive on the system, although the fact that they are the only ones shown to visitors (who are not able to travel freely in the city) has spawned a rumor that these are the only two stations in existence, and that the Metro is a Potemkin subway. However, before Puhung and Yonggwang were opened in 1987, visitors were shown Kwangbok and Kongguk stations instead. (I am not sure whether Metro tours took place, and if so what visitors were shown, before these stations opened in 1985.)

In both cases, these were the last two stations on the line. Presumably they were simply closed to Pyongyangites at these times, with trains terminating at the third-last station. Visits usually take place in mid-morning, so disruption would be minimized. (Again, nowadays there are strong indications that the entire metro is closed, except perhaps at rush hour, for lack of electricity.)

Current visitors are inevitably given a ride on one of a few former West Berlin D trains that have been repainted and otherwise spruced up. These may well be reserved for visitors’ use.

Several journalists who were in Pyongyang for the meeting between Kim Jong Il and Madeleine Albright, and were able to walk around without their North Korean guides, reported finding the Metro system out of service and deserted; the trains were still covered in German graffiti.


Your assurance of quality

The Metro logo contains the Korean word “ji,” which means “ground” — the V shape below the word then logically points downwards. So, as a whole it means “underground.” In fact, underground railway in Korean is “ji ha chol,” of which “ha” means “under” and “chol” is the short form for “railway” — it literally means iron. (Thanks to Jonathan Chandler for this explanation.) Graphic by the author, based on photographs of the Metro.

the party line

From time to time the Korean Central News Agency issues a news article about the Metro, such as the anniversary article cited above. Here are three of the most recent, dating from 3 February 2000, 11 April 2000, and 20 February 2002. There’s not a lot of difference between them, but the first and third hint that the Metro will be extended in the near future, while the second implies ther are aboveground stations, althouh none exist (it’s a bad translation). The ventilation system merits two mentions.

If you’re wondering, the Juche year refers to the calendar introduced in North Korea in 1997 that begins with the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912; Juche is the name of Kim’s philosophy of self-reliance. (For more of the official viewpoint, go to Guidebook.)

Pyongyang metro

Pyongyang, February 3 (KCNA) — The Pyongyang metro is a big player in the city traffic.

It was opened to traffic in 1973.

The completion of multi-phase projects in the subsequent period brought its total length to at least scores of km.

Its railways lead to the main streets of the capital before branching off in four directions. Its network covers 7 districts of the city.

There are 17 underground stations.

The stations’ names are very meaningful and rich in their contents.

The station, which was built in the place where the President Kim Il Sung made his first historic speech after his return to the liberated homeland in triumph, is named Kaeson station. Jonsung station is associated with the immortal exploit he performed by leading the three year-long fatherland liberation war to victory.

All the stations including Kwangbok, Puhung, Konguk, Tongil and Yonggwang stations stand in historic places in residential districts.

All stations boast their architectural beauty.

The interior of the stations decorated with over 100 large murals and 100-odd pieces of sculptures and embossed carvings are reminiscent of an art museum.

Large-sized mosaic murals and patchworks, including “country of Juche” and “paradisiacal Pothong River” depicting a dignified appearance and developing feature of the DPRK, are in perfect artistic harmony. Conspicuous are chandeliers colorfully decorated with hundreds of thousands of beads and peculiar lamps hanging from the ceilings of magnificent halls.

Both surface and underground stations are adequately air-conditioned.

More underground railways are expected to be laid in Pyongyang in near future.

Pyongyang, April 11 (KCNA) — The Pyongyang metro is one of major transport facilities for the citizens.

The metro was opened to traffic in September Juche 62 (1973) and its line has since been extended on three stages.

It has two lines, one from north to south and the other from east to west.

The lines branch off to cover different districts as well as the suburbs.

The metro has ground and underground stations.

Underground stations boast of artistic decorations of murals, sculptures and lighting which suit the name of stations.

Kwangbok station is decorated with sculptures showing the struggle and living of anti-Japanese guerrillas in defence of the President Kim Il Sung who liberated the country for the Korean people, and with murals 70 metres long and 3.6 metres high.

Yonggwang station reflects the glory of the Korean people living under the generous socialist system, holding Kim Il Sung in high esteem. Large murals “spring of Pyongyang” 80 metres long and 4 metres high are mosaiced on the right and left walls of the station. Numerous electric lights are suspending from the arch ceiling like the galaxy in the nocturnal sky and pillars and chandeliers represent firecrackers.

Konsol (construction), Hwanggumbol (golden field), Sungri (victory), Kaeson (triumphal return) and all other underground stations have architectural, aesthetic, ideological and artistic features.

The Pyongyang metro is a monumental edifice built with domestic designs, technique and materials.

Pyongyang, February 20 (KCNA) — The first stage line of Pyongyang Metro was opened to traffic in 1973. Several stages of projects were completed later and the metro is now operated in two lines (north-south and east-west), which cross the centre of the city.

The lines pass through 7 central districts and all the stations were built at the convenient places.

The precincts of the stations decorated with nearly 100 mural paintings and over 100 sculptures and relievos bear a close resemblance to an art gallery.

Different chandeliers with hundreds of thousands of gems and peculiar lighting sets are conspicuous in the halls.

The stations are well ventilated.

The foreign visitors to the metro are unanimous in highly praising it as an “underground palace.”

The metro lines will be lengthened in the future.

30 years of the pyongyang metro

In 2003, thiry years had passed since the first section of the Pyongyang Metro was opened in September 1973. Here’s what the Korean Central News Agency had to say about this event:

Anniversary of Pyongyang Metro Marked

Pyongyang, September 18 (KCNA) — It is 30 years since the Pyongyang Metro was opened to traffic. The metro, a monumental edifice in the era of the Workers’ Party, is providing the people with easy access to different parts of Pyongyang and is very instrumental in their ideological and cultural education.

A meeting held on September 18 on this occasion referred to the leadership exploits performed by President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il for the construction and operation of the metro. The meeting underscored the need to make energetic endeavours to put the management and the operation of the metro on a modern basis and consolidate its material and technical foundation in the revolutionary soldier spirit.

A congratulatory message of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea was conveyed to the employees of the Metro Management Bureau at the meeting.


The Pyongyang Metro has a museum that covers the events leading to the opening of the Metro in 1973, as well as operations and future plans. However, this is very much a museum in the North Korean sense, as this account by Dr. Andrei Lankov makes clear:

The exposition in the first few halls covers the childhood of Kim Il Song, followed by his activities in Manchuria, the Korean war and only finally do materials related to the metro itself begin to appear. There are photographs of the underground construction sites and of the workers as well as various kinds of printed materials issued during the subway construction. However, the main exhibits comprise such things as a pen with which Kim Il Song signed the decree for the start of construction, a chair on which Kim Il Song sat while inspecting the construction, a microphone into which Kim Il Song spoke a few words about the subway or even a special vehicle in which Kim Il Song once travelled between two underground stations. The walls are decorated with photos and pictures on the subject of “Kim Il Song and the workers of the subway.” A huge diorama with numerous sound and visual effects at which Koreans are very accomplished is devoted to the same theme: an inspection of the underground construction site by Kim Senior himself.

The Metro museum also contains several murals related to the construction and opening of the system. The first depicts Kim Il Sung offering “on-the-spot guidance” during construction:

Questions not recommended

Another shows jubilant citizens celebrating the opening of the Metro extension at Yonggwang station:

Definitely not rush hour at Victoria Station

Both of these images come from the fascinating Dutch site


If you would like to write to the Metro management, here is the address. There are no guarantees they will write back, although there is always the chance they might reply with some propaganda; praise for the beauty and technological innovation of the Pyongyang Metro probably couldn’t hurt your chances. As with other transit authorities, I imagine they would be happy to receive subway maps and paraphernalia from around the world.

Pyongyang Metro
City Metro Unit
Railway Section
Transport and Communication Commission
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

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