On both of my visits to North Korea (2014 and 2018) trains and the railway system more generally, within the country and beyond, were only mentioned by guides in terms of the Leaders, the very few on which tourists are permitted to travel and the non-existent service to Seoul in South Korea. The overall quality and reliability of the network and, in particular, the domestic service available to locals was not discussed.
In this review I will briefly cover the North Korean railway system insofar as it relates to international and domestic train travel for ordinary people (including foreigners). In a seperate review I will discuss train travel for the Leaders and the efforts being made to reinstate rail services to South Korea.
Should you ask to many questions about the railway system or seek to take photographs of stations, trains, railway bridges, tunnels and the like you will be reminded that such things are officially off limits to foreigners, in the same way as the military and military installations are off limits. In many senses the two are closely related and the railway system is used to move military and their equipment around the country though it is highly unlikely you will see this in practice.
Given foreign governments access to satellite image technology this argument for limited discussion on and restrictions on photography of the railway system makes no sense at all nowadays. There must be another reason why the topic is off limits to tourists.
At the risk of over generalising, Asians are very proud and modest people with the ability to save face being of paramount importance, particularly if the need to ease off or back down on an argument or deal arises. When dealing with outsiders they like to present their best and be exemplary hosts. North Koreans take this to a whole new level and are acutely embarrassed by anything that might be seen as a negative or as not portraying their leaders, their country, their home or themselves (in that order) in a positive light. Accordingly, things like poverty, lack of services, poor infrastructure, food shortages and the prison system were not discussed – certainly at a tour group level – or seen, except when it was necessary to refer to such things so as to attribute blame on the United States and other imperialist enemies, in particular Japan.
That said, I have mentioned elsewhere in my blog that the routine blaming of everything bad (for example, the paucity of vehicles on the country’s impressive (if pot-holed) highways and Pyongyang’s wide boulevards) on the United States which I encountered in 2014 had almost universally ceased in 2018 – tied to the ongoing ‘love affair’ between President Trump and Marshal Kim Jong-un.
Linking this back to the railways, despite the effort that is put into what I would term cosmetic maintenance programmes, the country is acutely embarrassed by the state of the system and its deteriorating infrastructure. As such, it is not something worthy of promotion to tourists and can be ignored. Having said that, in the past couple of years a small number of tours, geared to rail enthusiasts, have focused on train travel within the country. While tourists travel in separate carriages to the locals they obviously rely on the same infrastructure and locomotives though I imagine additional measures are put in place to ensure that trains carrying foreigners get priority and electricity is somehow made available to ensure they stay on schedule!
Either way and coupled with the limited timetables in operation I had few opportunities to capture images of trains on either of my trips and on most occasions when I did see one my camera was not at the ready! Naturally, taking photographs of ‘old’ locomotives, they being exemplars of North Korean engineering, was permitted in a number of railway museums. I took the following two at the Three Revolutions Exhibition on my 2014 visit. Far be it for me to comment so I will leave it to my reader to compare these pictures to my lead picture of a typical locomotive in current use.
In a rare admission to outsiders that anything might be amiss in the Juche paradise that is North Korea, Kim Jong-un has openly discussed the need to substantially upgrade and modernise the country’s railway system, linked to reinstating services to South Korea which, with extremely limited exceptions such as the on-again-off-again Kaesong Industrial Park service, have been severed since the Korean War in the early 1950s.
Much of these discussions have been targeted at, and with, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in. When Moon Jae-in said, in 2018, that he would like to travel through North Korea and hike up Mt. Paekdu Kim Jong-un indicated he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon travel through North Korea, as “our transportation, honestly, would be uncomfortable.” Of course, South Korea stands to gain as much from the restoration of services as does the North as it would open up distribution channels for its produce to China, Russia, the rest of mainland Asia and to Europe beyond. Given this Moon put forward a modernisation plan with a price tag of US$35 billion. While some preliminary tests, etc were carried any real progress has been thwarted by US imposed sanctions.
Back in 2014-15 Russia, which also has a vested interest in being able to access South Korea via the North, expressed interest in assisting in the upgrade of North Korea’s railways and estimated, at the time, that US$25 billion Russian investment would be needed – in return for mining rights for rare earths and other minerals. Nothing came of this as Russia got cold feet given ongoing political instability with-in North Korea and the risk of US interference causing the project to fail.
International Train Travel
The only international services operating from Pyongyang at present are services to Beijing and Moscow though in both cases the locomotives are for the majority of each journey not North Korean, these being decoupled from the train at Sinuiju or Tumangan just before the Chinese and Russian borders, respectively.
Defining a train journey as commencing when you get into a carriage and ending when you leave the same carriage many believe the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok at 9289 kms to be the world’s longest possible. In actual fact the Moscow to Pyongyang trip, via Tumangan, takes number one place it being almost 1000 kms longer at 10,272 km and taking, if on time, 211 hours. While you can do the full trip in the same carriage the locomotive hauling your carriage will change multiple times.
Note that while there are currently five services per month between Moscow and Pyongyang only two (those on the 11th and 25th of the month) have a North Korean carriage (there is only one) attached from Moscow. On the other three services you will need to change carriage more than once.
On the return journey, the carriage that will go right through to Moscow leaves Pyongyang significantly earlier than it should need to so as to ensure it can make its connection to the Russian rail system at Tumangan/ Khasan and thus with the Trans-Siberian railway at Ussuriisk on time. While on the Tran-Siberian leg the North Korean carriage is attached to train No. 1 or 2, the famous “Rossiya”.
[Both the above images come from an excellent, though very detailed blog, recounting a train trip from Vienna to Pyongyang entering into North Korea across its border with Russia – http://vienna-pyongyang.blogspot.com/2008/09/irkutsk-skovorodino.html]
Building in the time buffer referred to above is essential as breakdowns and power cuts are common as the train slowly chugs its way across North Korea. If the train makes better time than expected I understand it waits at Rason where passengers can stay on the train or, time permitting, visit the city – with guides, of course, for foreigners – before moving on to the border posts at Tumangan on the North Korean side and Khasan on the Russian side. At Tumangan a Russian locomotive replaces the Korean one and carriage bogies are charged from Standard Gauge to the slightly wider Russian Gauge.
Having detailed this trip I am unsure as to whether or not western tourists can currently enter into, or leave, North Korea on this service.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that it is possible to take a North Korean carriage from Pyongyang to Moscow via Beijing and the Trans-Mongolian but have been unable to verify this.
This takes me on to North Korea’s second international service, that connecting Pyongyang and Beijing.
Citizens of all countries except South Korea and the United States are permitted to use this service. Were it not for a current US ban on its citizens travelling to North Korea they would only be permitted to enter and leave the country by air.
The service to China operates four times a week with North Korean immigration and customs formalities taking place at Sinuiju and Chinese formalities taking place in Dandong, across the Yalu River in China. In 2014 I took this service, taking a 24 hours stopover in Sinuiju prior to entering China by bus before proceeding to Beijing by train from Dandong.
Rather than repeat information on my 2014 trip from Pyongyang to Dandong I suggest you read the following reviews. Based on discussions with people from our group who took the train out in 2018 (I flew in and out that year) not much has changed in the intervening years apart from some relaxation around taking photographs on, and out of, the train while within North Korea.
Below are a couple of pictures I took inside our 6 berth carriage (which two of us shared) in 2014. At that time it was forbidden to take pictures within and indeed outside the train and well nigh impossible to do so in the dining carriage including of the food served. The latter was rather ironic as our meal on the train leaving North Korea was possibly the best food we had on the whole trip.
All international rail carriages carry the national emblem of North Korea in addition to a board indicating the train’s routing.
Domestic Train Travel
As with international services originating in North Korea, all domestic train services are operated by the Korean State Railway. There are approximately 5100 kms of track all of which, bar a few hundred kms of narrow gauge track, is standard gauge and the vast majority of it is electrified. By the time Japan left, or was rather booted out of the country in 1945 – almost single handedly by Kim Il-sung if you believe some reports – not only was Korea, as a whole, arguably the most industrialised part of East Asia, outside Japan itself, but it also had one of Asia’s largest and most advanced railway systems. Sadly it has gone downhill ever since, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the flow of money and expertise there-from.
While the map below (c Wikipedia) shows that the network is relatively extensive covering the majority of the country it tells us nothing about the decline in the quality of the network, infrastructure or rolling stock.
The electrification of the North Korea’s railways took place in the 1970s and 1980s – not because North Korea was away ahead in the race to be green but rather because it wanted to remove its heavy reliance on expensive imported oil (diesel). Rather than replace the locomotive fleet, which it would not have been able to afford to do even then, diesel engines were removed from many of its old (1950s and 1960s) Chinese locomotives and replaced with the necessary electrical gadgetry. These locomotives were re-badged as North Korean manufactured and many still operate today. Having previously imported locomotives from the China, the Soviet Union and other former Eastern Bloc countries they are now manufactured in North Korea at the Kim Chong-t’ae Electric Locomotive Works in Pyongyang.
The overbearing desire not be reliant on imported fuel also manifested itself in the retention of steam powered locomotives fired by the country’s abundant coal reserves. Unfortunately steam trains were very inefficient and have now been totally phased out, at least on the main lines.
The shift to electricity was done at the time when the country had an extensive and highly modern hydro-electricity supply. Due to lack of investment the power stations subsequently fell into a state of disrepair resulting in constant power outages across the country by the late 1990s. At this time the 700km trip from Pyongyang to Chongjin in the industrial north-east could, and often did, take numerous days.
While things have improved since then train travel remains slow and unreliable. Main line trains rarely reach a speed of 60kms/hour while on branch line trains travel at a much more sedate 15kms/hour.
The only train that appears to regularly run on time is the international service between Pyongyang and Dandong in China – not surprisingly, the service most used by foreigners.
Outside the specialised rail tours I referred to earlier foreign tour groups do not use trains within North Korea as in addition to being slow and unreliable they are also very expensive – local fares do not apply. Our western guide indicated that even for a short trip a whole carriage must be booked (tourists are not permitted to share carriages with local people) and payment made for the full train trip distance irrespective of the distance actually travelled. Like for all other services in North Korea train fares for locals would be nominal to the extent that the cost of issuing tickets and collecting the fares would, even here, exceed the revenue collected.
If you are still awake and can remember back to the beginning of this review you will recall I referred to cosmetic maintenance programmes. While the country, for various reasons – internal and external – lacks the funds to modernise, replace and carry out expensive maintenance on its railways a vast amount of effort is put into ensuring that everything looks pretty – in particular the tracks, some of which survived the Korean War and date back to the Japanese colonial era.
Local work gangs, receiving minimal wages, look after the track in their area of responsibility such that it is rare to see a speck of rubbish, a weed or a stone out of place.
I could not resist adding this picture (which I found in the Pyongyang Railway Museum) of a happy work gang from earlier times. Members of to-days gangs did not appear as jovial. Perhaps they were overcome by shyness on seeing us foreigners.
Our guide indicated that these local work gangs (and similar gangs who maintain the roads) do the work out of a sense of loyalty to the Leader, rather than for reward. Just look at how scarcely a stone is outside the white line in the pictures below.
You may also have noted old wooden and decayed sleepers in the pictures above. This is not universal and more modern track does exist particularly around Pyongyang, in the industrial north east (where photography from our bus was prohibited) and on the West Sea Barrage at Nampo, as depicted below.
One of the most endearing things I saw in North Korea was how these work gangs also grew flowers along both railway tracks and roads, throughout the country. The same flowers, presumably provided by the central authorities, were on display along all the main roads we used, much of the railway tracks we saw and on many of the minor roads we travelled. Our guide advised that the flowers were a spring-time treat and reward for Kim Jong-un as he travelled around the country, working tirelessly for the people as his father and grandfather had done before him.
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews –HERE