A Look at Pyongyang’s Placemaking in Metro Stations

We are all on the edge of our seats waiting for the Triangle’s light rail to start making tracks. But where will its course lie? What cities will be graced with a stop? And what will it look like? Let’s look to a far off and distant land yet one near in Northern nomenclature to gain inspiration for this new transit infrastructure.

Few tourists are granted entry into North Korea. Once in, your visit is highly curated. If you wish to visit the Pyongyang metro stations you can only disembark at a couple stops. However, the underground is worth a visit for its impressive system-wide nationalist art, each station depicting a tenant of the North Korean revolution. Take this with a handful of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism: North Korea is a leading example in public placemaking.

Kim Il Sung is depicted in this mural in the Konguk station working alongside the citizens of North Korea. Photo credit: subartsf.org

An English-language guide of the Pyongyang metro system, published in North Korea, touts its elaborate décor for, “convey(ing) to posterity the glorious revolutionary history and the leadership exploits of the great leader President Kim Il Sung.” Leadership exploits indeed: it is rumored that there is a second underground system hidden under the conventional metro, some 110 meters below grade, complete with a warren of tunnels that would allow leaders to escape to China in case of emergency; and it doubles as a bomb shelter. That mysterious project aside, Pyongyang’s showcase stations, Puhung (Reconstruction) and Yonggwang (Glory), put on quite a show. The lighting fixtures, reminiscent of fireworks, in the Yonggwang Station are intended to “bring to view the victory celebrations after the war,” and the pillars evoke victory torches bursting into flame. On the walls, massive mosaics depict the leader flanked by strong and smiling workers. Truly glorious.

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Yonggwang (Glory) Station: its chandeliers represent the fireworks that celebrated the nations victory, and the pillars are sculpted in the shape of victory torches. Photo credit: subartsf.org

While Puhung and Yonggwang stations would be included in your Pyongyang metro tour, no wall space in any of the 15 other stations more sequestered from foreign eyes is spared from exhibiting the system’s nationalist theme: there are over 100 propagandistic murals under Pyongyang’s streets. Stations are named not based on their geographic location but on state ideals and are decorated to reflect them in the socialist realist style: Kwangbok (Rebirth or Restoration) is lined with murals showing scenes of the forest from which Kim Il Sung is purported to have led the country’s anti-Japanese attacks. And the entire system was designed with Moscow’s system as a model: you can find marble and stone accents as well as opulent, and heavy, chandeliers throughout: the ones hanging from the ceiling of Puhung are rumored to weigh 4 tons each.

Scenes of the North Korea countryside line Kwangbok (Rebirth, or Restoration) and depict the places where various military affronts and successes played out. Photo credit: subartsf.org

While a dubious role model at best, Pyongyang is a case study in public transportation: the city has essentially no private automobiles and its underground trains run as close as two minutes apart during peak hours. The unifying design of their stations, while oppressive in theme, admittedly conveys a strong message—metro stations are an excellent opportunity for collective cultural enrichment and placemaking (or indoctrination).

(Rachel Wexler originally wrote and published a version of this article on SubArtSF.org.)

Rachel Wexler is the co-editor of the Carolina Planning Journal and pursuing her master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. Her bachelor’s is in English from UC Berkeley; prior to beginning her master’s she worked as an editor, cook, and musician. Her academic work focuses on economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and placemaking. Her non-academic work focuses on playing in general and playing cello in particular. She also thinks frequently about Oakland, California and Berlin, Germany, both of which she calls home. These are also the urban spaces that brought her to this charming small town to study planning.