Being a fan of all things railway I greatly looked forward to visiting this museum and, being in North Korea, I knew it would have that something extra. It did not disappoint.
I have indicated elsewhere in this blog that everything in North Korea of a cultural or artistic (or indeed of any) nature has one of a small number of purposes – to deify the Kim family, to glorify the army or extol the virtues of North Korea.
The majority of North Korea’s museums and similar institutions focus on promoting and celebrating the life and works of Kim Il-sung. While Kim Il-sung certainly features regularly in the Railway Museum this is one of very few known ‘shrines’ to, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il.
This is not as odd as it may appear to some. To be fair to Kim Jong-il, while Kim Il-sung inherited one of Asia’s best railway systems from the Japanese, something not worthy of mention (!), management of the railways and the provision of guidance on them fell into his son’s domain fairly early on and, given his fear of flying, his interest in them was strong.
The museum focuses on the country’s railway construction projects and how they were influenced/ directed by Kim Jong-il and, to a lesser extent, Kim Il-sung.
Generally when you enter museums, schools and similar type public buildings in North Korea the first thing you encounter is a huge statue, photograph, painting or mural celebrating the life or work of Kim Il-sung or those of him and Kim Jong-il. The railway museum is no different in this regard and at the far end of its large marble lined foyer is a massive, generously illuminated, mural depicting Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il opening the Pyongyang Railway Station in 1958.
The mural is on a concave canvas to the rear of a raised platform with the steps onto that platform giving the steps at the bottom of the mural and the whole scene a real three dimensional appearance – really professionally done.
The mural features the two most important attributes of all great North Korean artwork – happy, smiling leaders being applauded and adulated by people from all sections of society with flower bearing children dressed in their most colourful garb.
While the chandeliers on the platform depicted in the mural are an exercise in artistic licence (they are not present in the station itself) the one and the many hundreds of bulbs bringing light to the cavernous foyer are real.
As in other public buildings, these lights do not burn continuously and would have been switched off immediately after our group moved from the foyer into the various display rooms, and each room, in turn, would have been illuminated and then returned to darkness after we passed through.
Prior to moving on from the foyer our guide spent some time telling us about train travel, domestic and international, undertaken by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, drawing on the information contained on large electronic maps as she did. I have written more about the Leaders’ train travel in a separate review – Train Travel in North Korea – For No One and for the Leaders – so will not repeat myself here.
Moving into the museum exhibit area, our guided tour was bookmarked by two amazing dioramas, one focusing on the use of, and the ongoing destruction of, the railways during the 1950-53 Korean War and the other on the rebuilding and modernisation of the railways in the aftermath of that war. There was little, in the museum, to suggest that there had been any significant upgrade or modernisation of the network (as opposed to rolling stock) post this initial work, especially since the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This stalling in work was evidenced by what I saw on the ground as I travelled around the country and, more poignantly, by recent comments of Kim Jong-un lamenting the state of the network.
We were invited to notice how, day and night, ordinary people devoted their lives to maintaining the railways during the war, notwithstanding ongoing enemy bombardment and destruction.
The North made extensive use of trains to transport troops and military hardware (including replenishments from China and Russia) during the war, in addition to using them as ‘gunships’ in their own right. It is little wonder that the Southern alliance would want to take them out.
After the war a substantial investment (with Soviet funding) over many years was made in rebuilding and updating the railway system and this work is depicted in a second diorama.
The detail in this diorama, where the work is naturally being supervised and guided by Kim Jong-il who is depicted here updating Kim Il-sung on progress, is quite amazing right down to a brass band playing to encourage the happy and patriotic workers. The band is supported, in another part of the diorama, by murals and a loud-speaker laden propaganda van providing further encouragement to the proletariat.
Through the remainder of the museum various pictures and artefacts also speak to this rebuilding work and the subsequent development and maintenance of the railway network.
Additionally, later developments including the transfer from the use of Chinese and other Eastern Bloc rolling stock to locally produced equipment is well covered in the museum. North Korean produced equipment is almost exclusively manufactured by the state owned Kim Chong-t’ae Electric Locomotive Works in Pyongyang. There are many pictures in the museum depicting the manufacture of rolling stock at the works and related businesses.
As if to prove the Locomotive Works’ gentler side to its heavy machinery manufacture the museum has on display a child’s tricycle, also manufactured there. Or is it a childhood toy of Kim Jong-ils?
In addition to pictures of Kim Jong-il giving on the spot guidance on the railway, throughout the displays there are numerous pictures of Kim Jong-il as a child and, more significantly, quite a few later ones of him alone.
Also on display are international press cuttings extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-il’s leadership and an extensive collection of his written works – neither having anything, insofar as I could ascertain, to do with railways.
It would be unfair to suggest that no one other than the Kim family feature in the museum. There is a modest recognition of the contribution of others in this ‘socialist’ country where the normal “all glory to the workers” is replaced with “all glory to the leaders.”
Having learned a little about the history of North Korean Railways and how it emerged and developed based on the sagely advice and guidance of Kim Jong-il we went outside to enter the relatively modest, by North Korean standards, rolling stock display area. By this stage I was getting a little tired (it had been a long day) and didn’t really focus on what the guide was saying but the gist of it was that much, if not all, of the items on display in this area was used by one or more of the Leaders at some point.
All in all, this is a decent railway museum with the added value of some great material on Kim Jong-il, thrown in for good measure.
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review– HERE (coming soon!)
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang reviews – HERE