Pyongyang Underground


Pyongyang, North Korea – April 2016

Some have speculated that the Pyongyang Metro is an elaborate hoax. The three stations that tourists are allowed to visit are the only stations that exist.* All of the commuters are actors. Everything about North Korea is an illusion, they say. You can’t trust anything you see.

It is a long, steep descent. As we glide down the softly lit escalator, an ardent female voice chirps a patriotic anthem. Commuters drift by on their way up. They stare ahead, faces devoid of expression. The few who turn to gaze as we glide into the depths respond with icy glints of contempt or flickers of curiosity.

We chatter. There is so much to talk about, so many things we want to know. We are still decked out in our Palace of the Sun finery. Most of the guys are wearing suits and DPRK pins. I’m wearing a colorful new skirt that swirls when I spin around. As the platform comes into view, a shiny new train pulls into the station.


Our Western guide claps his hands. “Cool! We get to ride one of the new prototype trains. I haven’t ridden one yet.”

The train hesitates as we take photos of the Kim Il-Sung mural. A warning bell sounds. We hop on. The doors slide shut. The passengers blink and shift in their seats, a gradual awakening from the trance of uniformity. The tour group spreads out. Some just ride, some take photos. We beam at each other. Why are we so exhilarated? It’s just a metro ride, for crying out loud. A schoolgirl gets up and motions me to take her seat. I shake my head. She insists, so I sit down.


Another member of our group sits across from me. The man next to him narrows his eyes at me. I keep my face neutral. No condescension. No pity. No desperate camaraderie. Smiles can backfire, make things worse. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his expression soften. When I look directly at him, the sides of his mouth straighten. I look away and look back at him a few times. His eyes light up and a slight grin appears. In spite of himself. He points at my camera and shakes his head. I nod. Okay. But I break my own rule of not taking photos of people without their consent. A quick flick of the wrist and the deed is done. The result is priceless.


Most of our group of twenty-four are men. There are two couples. Only two of us are solo women. Except for three, all of the men are young enough to be my sons. I find myself wistful in their presence. They are so inquisitive about this mysterious place. So respectful of the culture and of the older members of our group. Their parents deserve to be proud.**


The train halts. We spill out of the carriage. Kim Jong Il towers over the staircase. Candy-colored chandeliers illuminate delicate cityscape murals. Those of us with cameras scurry around. So many images, so little time.


The guides herd us towards the next train, a sturdy retro type. We embark at the back of the carriage. The stench of urine hits us full force as we step inside. Some of us look at each other and stifle grins. The Korean guides are embarrassed. They beckon us towards the front.

“Wow, they sure go to great lengths to fool tourists,” I whisper to one of my companions. He nods, eyes shining.


We weave in and out of the passengers. Again the slow reaction to our arrival. The initial coldness. I pause in the middle of the aisle. Two middle-aged ladies sit on the right. Two higher ranking military men sit on the left. Colonels, possibly. The force of their glares makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I grasp the bar above me and stare straight ahead, face neutral again. Just be with them. Just be.


The departed Leaders bestow their benevolent smiles upon the passengers. I step forward and peer through the window to the next carriage. The passengers stand motionless, phantoms lost in reverie. A slight commotion to the right. Some of the group have lined up to take photos of a pigtailed little girl. She giggles and squirms on her grandmother’s lap. Her grandparents are delighted at the attention. They give me an expectant look. I hesitate. She is adorable, but the ruckus around her makes me cringe. I smile at them, but I cannot bring myself to aim my camera her way. I retreat to my original place.

When I look at the military men, they smile at me in unison. Deep, sincere smiles. A soft radiance wells up inside, spreads through me, infusing my atoms.

We stop, but do not alight. People file off. People file on. An elderly woman takes a seat next to the military men. She notices me, starts to rise, and offers her seat. Sparkling black eyes. Toothless smile. Every line in her face glows. I shake my head. No way. The military men laugh. She laughs. Warmth emanates from the middle-aged women to my right. For this one precious moment we share a bond of simple happiness. It doesn’t get any realer than this.


Then it is time to leave. Waves of farewell. The doors slide shut and the train vanishes into the dark tunnel. We ascend, breathless. The chatter resumes.

“They’re just people going about their lives.”

“No one will ever believe us.”

“We may as well have witnessed an alien invasion.”

We look at each other and laugh.

It was just a metro ride, for crying out loud.


*There are now Pyongyang metro photography tours which visit all sixteen stations.

**On the last evening of the trip, I mentioned to one of the young men how pleased I was that they were so cool to me, since I was old enough to be their mother. He told me, “You would be the coolest mom!” I was stunned speechless for a few seconds. “Now, that’s something I’ve never heard,” I replied. “If anyone says anything about it, they say it’s a good thing I never had kids.” He was horrified that anyone would say such a thing, but I assured him it was okay. I am used to being scorned by the Motherhood. I’ll never forget his words. So many unforgettable little things, extraordinary in their simplicity, happened during this journey.