Given the dearth of private vehicles in North Korea ordinary citizens rely on public transport to get around, where they cannot walk or cycle to their desired destinations. In Pyongyang public transport comprises a metro (underground) system, trams, trolley-buses and buses. This is supplemented by an increasing number of taxis but due to their extremely high cost, compared to other forms of public transport, they are really only an option for the upper and (growing) middle classes.
Public transport is heavily subsidised, with a one-way ticket for any length of journey costing five North Korean Won. At the official exchange rate this equates to about five US cents. Using the real exchange rate (applicable to the locals) of around 8,500 North Korean Won to one US dollar the cost becomes virtually zero.
Prior to the Korean War (1950 -53) there were three tram networks on the Korean Peninsula – one in each of Seoul, Busan and Pyongyang. The Pyongyang system was obliterated by bombing attacks during the war and was not rebuilt at the time.
By the mid 1980s the trolley-bus lines and metro (which opened in 1973) were becoming overcrowded and a decision was made to reinstate trams. The first line was built and opened in 1989 with two more main lines following. In typical North Korean fashion there is a fourth, narrow gauge, line devoted to taking passengers to and from the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state.
Between 1990 and 1992 North Korea bought 129 new Czechoslovakian CKD Tatra T6B5 trams and since then has added a further 320, or so, second-hand CKD Tatra trams to the system, sourced from Leipzig (200), Dresden (95), and Magdeburg (25). All the trams are in a red/white livery.
In August 2018, coinciding with the addition of new trolley-buses, three brand new trams were added to the system, the first in thirty years. These were initially tested on the Kwangbok (Liberation) Street line, the city’s busiest, connecting to Pyongyang Railway Station. The new trams were manufactured by ‘the officials, researchers, technicians and skilled workers of the Bus Repair Factory’ in Pyongyang, from mostly domestic parts.
Naturally, prior to going into service the trams were personally inspected by Kim Jong-un who was particularly pleased stating that it ‘will be wonderful to see the trams and trolley-buses’ which he also inspected ‘made by our own hands running in the streets.’ He further indicated how he ‘used to feel a heavy heart when he used to see old public transport means giving inconveniences to the people.’
My tram trip, in September 2018, along about 8 kms (return) of the Kwangbok (Liberation) Street line was on one of the older Czechoslovakian CKD Tatra T6B5 trams. Given that it would have upwards of thirty years old it was in remarkably good shape and, unlike a trolley-bus we took in Chongjin, it was in excellent mechanical order such that the trip went without hitch. I am always amazed at how long things are made to last in North Korea.
Tourists are not permitted to use any form of public transport or taxis in Pyongyang, or anywhere else in the country, for general transport. As such, any trips on public transport are organised tourist activities. On my earlier visit in 2014 tourists were only permitted to take a short trip in the same carriages as locals, accessing a few specific stations, on the Pyongyang Metro.
By 2018 tourists were permitted to travel along most of the metro system (with guides, of course) as well as take short trips on specific trolley-buses and the tram system, in Pyongyang and a small number of other locations. In the case of the tram (and the trolley-bus) tourists were only permitted to travel on specially chartered vehicles, devoid of local passengers. For me, the lack of locals on the tram turned what could have been a great experience into something rather artificial and thus less enjoyable. On the other hand, seeing how crowded the trams sometimes are, perhaps it was good that we had our own.
Though we were separated from local commuters, I still enjoyed our sedate ride down Kwongbok Street on first morning in Pyongyang. While we only passed one of the city’s generally recognisable sites, the short trip provided a series of vignettes of how people live and think in the country as a whole, albeit drawn from one of Pyongyang’s more affluent districts.
Stay with me now for a look at some of these vignettes as I made my way from the Mangyongdae Tram Depot to the Kwangbok Department Store, mainly along Kwongbok Street (and back). We had a few very brief photo stops along the way – the tram had to keep to it schedule so as not to delay other trams on the line.
Prior to our leaving the depot our guide drew our attention to the row of red stars adorning much of the side of the tram we were about to board.
She advised that each tram is allocated to a driver and that a star is added each time the driver/tram travels 50,000 kilometres without an accident. The typical tram travels around 75,000 per year. On this tram there are 26 stars indicating 1.3 million kilometres of accident free driving. We were told this record of safe driving was typical and showed the dedication of the drivers to their work, for the people, and their care for the country’s assets entrusted to them. I do find it a little odd that a tram would be solely operated by one driver as the service operates from early morning to late evening, seven days a week, and it would have taken around 17 years to attain 26 stars, assuming nil accidents. Perhaps I misunderstood and it is the tram that gets the award – irrespective of how many drivers it has.
Shortly after leaving the depot we passed in front of the massive and very impressive Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. This, and other Children’s Palaces around the country, offer extracurricular activities for children, with the added advantage of permitting their mothers to engage in ‘work, political and cultural activities.’ Do have a look at my separate review on this Palace.
The building is in a crescent shape, symbolic of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, embracing the children he so loved.
On either side of the building there is a massive mural of a youthful Kim Il-sung, in military attire, joining other children in the celebration of learning and youth.
Major importance is placed on education within North Korea. Children are the future of the country and the ongoing existence and relevance of the regime relies on them being appropriately educated. Jon Yong Nam, chairman of the Central Committee of Kim Il-sung’s Socialist Youth League, emphasised the need to ‘train the younger generations to become reliable successors to the revolutionary cause of Juche in order to ensure the eternal prosperity of Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s Korea.’ The Pyongyang Times (weekly English newspaper) recently referred to the Children’s Palace as ‘pedigree farm’ for the education of talented children.
The first thing that caught my attention about the Children’s Palace on our tram ride was what looked liked an extremely oversized sheet hung out to dry, across a balcony on the front of the building (see picture above). Presumably work was being carried out as the ‘sheet’ covered the massive images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il commonly seen on public buildings. A couple of days later the ‘sheet’ had been removed and the Leader’s images were again proudly displayed, as they were on another building a little further down the street the day we took our tram ride.
Public adulation of and promotion of the Kim Dynasty, the army, the Workers Party and the Juche (self-reliance) philosophy, under which the country is managed, is frequently done through the use of strategically placed murals, throughout the country in both urban and rural areas and a few such murals can be seen on Kwongbok Street.
In addition to murals commemorating Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, ‘Eternal Life’ monuments can also be found all over the country, including one here on Kwongbok Street.
Following the death of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, his successor, Kim Jong-il, ordered the building of Yeong Saeng ( Eternal Life) monuments throughout North Korea. It is thought that some 3,000 of these monuments were erected in prominent positions in cities, towns and villages across the country with each serving as a reminder, through their main inscription, that the “Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung is with us for Eternity.” This is just as well given that he is the Eternal President of the DPRK. Following the death of Kim Jong-il some of the monuments were updated to remind us that he too is with us for eternity.
I should add that, contrary to the misleading reporting of many, including mainstream media outlets, political murals are not on every street corner though there are more on this main thoroughfare than in other parts of the city. Also, those that do exist tend stand out more than they otherwise might given the absence of any other form of public advertising. In 2014 I understood that a billboard near the airport advertising a locally produced car was the only billboard or public non-political advertising in North Korea. It was the only one I saw. By 2018 there were a few more billboards including one on this street and one at the main railway station. They still only advertised the locally produced car, a stark reminder that consumerism is not promoted in North Korea.
Thinking more about this vehicle advertisement I suspect that it is there more as a reminder to the people (including visitors) that North Korea produces its own vehicles, rather than being an invitation to treat. The average person in North Korea cannot afford to buy a car – much less run it if they had one.
As evidenced by the absence of vehicles on Kwongbok Street (five lanes in each direction) on the Sunday morning we took our tram trip personal ownership of vehicles is extremely rare in North Korea. The road was slightly busier on other weekdays when we passed along it.
The vehicle depicted in the picture above is a company vehicle. I can tell this from the colour of the number plate. The vast majority of vehicles in North Korea are either company or government/military owned.
A slight diversion, if I may? Car (there is a different system of truck, buses and bicycles) number plates in North Korea are one of five colours each corresponding with an ownership type as indicated below:
Blue – Company (including Government Companies)
Black – Military
Pastel Blue – Diplomatic / NGO and other foreigners. Registration number 01 01 belongs to the Russian Ambassador. Interestingly, the US Ambassador to South Korea has a registration number 001 001.
White – Roads Authority
Yellow – Private individual – I did not see any of these but the few that exist are on vehicles awarded to individuals, by the government, for some great feat done for the nation or occasionally they belong to those who have close relatives in Japan who can somehow send them a cheap second hand car. The later supposedly explains why most of the yellow plated cars are old Hondas and Nissans.
Lining Kowngbok Street are an assortment of apartment blocks. A couple of these are depicted below and others can be seen in earlier pictures. Very few, outside the Leadership and the highest of the elite, in North Korea live in detached housing. A raft of much newer apartments (in fact a whole new street) for scientists, engineers, lecturers and other favoured residents were built in 2017 at Ryomyong Street. This street will be the subject of a seperate review.
All types of sports (outside common US ones) are taken very seriously in North Korea and sporting facilities are second to none. In addition to the major stadiums and general purpose gymnasiums in Pyongyang there are dozens of specialist buildings and arena dedicated to individual sports. Two of these can be found on Kwongbok Street.
In terms of commercial premises – i.e restaurants and shops, there are a number along the street though due to the paucity of window displays, bright lights and the conspicuous advertising one finds in a capital city anywhere else in the world you have to look carefully to see them. The city’s first western style store (set up as a joint venture with a Chinese company), the Kwongbok Department Store, catering to the relatively affluent in this part of the city is located along this street. It is one of the few department stores in North Korea open to tourists and perhaps the only one where local currency can be obtained and used. See my separate review – The Kwangbok Department Store – Let’s Go Shopping for further detail.
There are a few other stores along the street. While some have large windows goods tend not to be put on show in those windows the way it is elsewhere but I should add that window displays in 2018 (pictured here) are a major advance on those I encountered in 2014!
The most noticeable change on this street, and elsewhere in North Korea, in terms of shopping between my visits in 2014 and 2018 was an absolute mushrooming of small kiosks, selling snacks and food in the main. While I think most of these, especially those in Pyongyang are still heavily controlled by the government their growth is very clear evidence of a shift towards the acceptance of small scale private enterprise – a shift fully endorsed by Kim Jong-un. I wonder what his father and grandfather would be thinking as very clearly times are a-changing.
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review– HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang reviews – HERE