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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Travelogues: Berlin U-Bahn to Pyongyang Metro

Circa 1989 East Berlin D-Series Carriage -- Pyongyang Metro 2013 
Photo: Tong Lam
Contemporary D-Series Carriage -- U-Bahn Berlin 2014 
Photo: Tong Lam

We are in error when we imagine the DPRK as a place that is resolutely frozen in the past. Despite synchronizing the calendar to ideology, no place is immune to the process of change and entropy.

Pictured above are two Berlin D-Series subway carriages. The top image shows a late-model carriage currently operating in Berlin, while the bottom image shows an earlier make of the D-Series operating today in Pyongyang.

The North Korean carriages were manufactured in West Berlin in the late 80's, originally purchased by the GDR for use in East Berlin.  After the Berlin Wall opened, the units were operated in the newly reunified Berlin until 1999, at which point they were sold and delivered to Pyongyang.

Since that time, these carriages have operated in Pyongyang's Metro, serving the population of approximately 2.5 million and frequently ridden by tourists who visit to the country.

For most readers, the carriages in Pyongyang might be the most remarkable, notable for their austere interiors, adorned simply with the ubiquitous Kimagery which forms the habitual backdrop synonymous with North Korean daily life.

For those who rode these U-Bahn carriages in the newly unified Berlin of the 1990s, the image from contemporary Pyongyang might feel strangely familiar.  Exteriors were repainted, but except for the removal of adverts and maps, the interiors remain mostly untouched (including the graffiti scratched into the windows!)  For some tourists, the distinctive slam of the doors has triggered familiar memories surprising to recall in a place so far from home.

The juxtaposed images of the carriages in Pyongyang and Berlin come together to form something of a gestalt image, which allows to us to see the present in dramatic, familiar contrast with the past.  We are afforded an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the enormity of changes in political, social and economic organisation since then.

Having regrettably never traveled to Berlin, we find the contemporary D-Series carriages most surprising.  Here infotainment and Microsoft imagery -- the ubiquitous, habitual backdrop synonymous with our own daily lives -- appear at once familiar in content but in striking contrast with our time spent aboard the Pyongyang metro carriages.

The image of the iconic Berlin TV Tower, itself once a ubiquitous symbol of life in East Berlin, is here set against the backdrop of the modern Berlin carriage.  We are given pause to consider Pyongyang's own iconic TV Tower, and reflect upon the passage of time in a place which many of us wrongly imagine impervious to its workings.

We wonder what the irrepressible process of change will bring to the future of Pyongyang, and the D-series metro carriages silently bearing witness one-hundred and two metres underneath the city each day.


Photos were taken by Professor Tong Lam, a photographer who traveled with us to the DPRK in 2013.  His book Abandoned Futures is an attractive collection which marvels at the beauty of change and the effects of entropy.

An extended tour of the Pyongyang metro, trams and trolleybuses are offered on our Retro DPRK tours to North Korea, operated by Koryo Tours.  We also offer a tour which travels across the country from Pyongyang to Chongjin by train, traversing routes closed to westerners since the 1950's.

Message christopher [at] for more info. 

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