A train pulls into Puhung Station. One of the most lavishly decorated stops, Puhung was one of only two metro stations foreign visitors were allowed into before 2010.
It’s hard to visit Pyongyang, North Korea. But now a new section of the city is open to tours. And it’s a section that’s fastidiously clean, fervently patriotic, and fabulously dressed.
For years, outsiders were allowed inside only two of the Pyongyang subway system’s 17 stops, sparking conspiracy theories that the whole thing was merely an elaborate setup, complete with costumed actors posing as commuters. But last fall, Pyongyang opened its full metro system to tourists for the first time, just as Australian travel blogger and software developer Elliott Davies arrived in North Korea for his government-sanctioned tour. What he found was “pretty much a broad museum of North Korea and all of its ideals,” he said. “I didn't expect it to be as clean as it was. I feel bad saying this, but it was probably the most beautiful subway system I've ever seen in my life.”
As commuters descend 316 feet below the city’s central business district, they are accompanied by a soundtrack of patriotic anthems playing over antique loudspeakers. They pass through thick steel doors that enable the stations to double as bunkers in the event of a nuclear disaster. Each station, named not for a geographic landmark but rather a socialist buzzword, features some combination of gilded statues of Kim Il Sung, detailed mosaic murals, bronze plaques commemorating North Korean military victories, and whimsical chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.
“Every single station pretty much covers all of what they really want the people in North Korea to listen to, and what they want them to be indoctrinated by,” Davies says. “That's really good for the tourists as well. The whole journey in North Korea is political, where they want you to come out the other side and be like, ‘You know what? North Korea's not that bad!”