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Inside North Korea

Railways in N. Korea (2)



Today, continuing our focus on North Korea’s railway system, we’ll learn about the country’s rolling stock and railroad modernization project. Here’s Ahn Byung-min, president of the Korea Economic Cooperation Institute, who visited North Korea several times for railway research there. 

When we took an express train in North Korea, locals were not allowed to use the train. We found the portrait of former leader Kim Il-sung in the train. There were fans, not air conditioners, even in the express train. In slow trains used by general citizens, windows were broken, while air-conditioning and heating systems were inadequate. The outdated trains were considered rather inconvenient. 

At present, North Korea is known to operate steam locomotives from the Japanese colonial era, imported diesel locomotives and electric and diesel locomotives that the country has produced domestically since 1961. There are about ten major railroad-related facilities in the North, including the Kim Chong-tae Electric Locomotive Works, the June 4 Factory, the July 6 Factory and the Pyongyang Rolling Stock Repair Factory. Open freight cars as well as general parts of locomotives and passenger cars are manufactured at those facilities, while special freight cars, main electric equipment and engines are imported. Unfortunately, parts have not been supplied properly due to economic difficulties and international sanctions on the country. 

A passengers train in North Korea carries sleeping cars, coaches, the diner and a lounge car. Some trains transport luggage and mails. 

There are about 720 train stations in North Korea. Stations in charge of maintenance of rolling stock are called technology stations, and cargo stations are designed to handle freight. Stations where passengers get off a train are called passenger stations. There are way stations, and some stations are used solely for railway signaling. 

Many of North Korean railway stations have interesting names. In general, the name of a region is reflected in the name of a train station located in that region. But North Korean stations, in many cases, use the names of particular figures, events or dates with great significance. 

Under the instructions of former leaders Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, many North Korea train stations were named after memorable events or dates. In the 1990s, for example, a railway station near Sinuiju was called Pohyang(포향), named after female worker Shin Po-hyang(신포향) who made a great achievement at the Ragwon Machine Complex. Similarly, the Kimchaek station was named after a North Korean politician and the Haksong station earned the name of Kim Hak-song, who participated in the activities in the anti-Japanese armed struggle. The magnesite reserve in the Dancheon(단천) area is one of the largest in the world. Interestingly, Kim Il-sung named a railway station in that area “Donsan,” meaning “money mountain” in Korean, as he believed that mineral resources in the mountainous area would be lucrative.  

North Korean trains are classified into special, express, local express, slow and commuter, depending on the speed of the train and the station the train stops at. A special train is reserved for top leaders’ field inspections inside the country or international diplomacy. When the special train is in operation, other trains all come to a halt. 

The special train used by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il was in the news a lot in the past. Former leader Kim Jong-il traveled to Moscow by train at the invitation of Russia. At the time, Russian envoy to the Far East Federal District Konstantin Pulikovskii joined the North Korean leader’s railroad journey for about 18 days. A book written by the envoy portrays Kim’s special train in detail. According to the book, a car used as a meeting room in the middle of the train, a diner and a sleeping car were bulletproof. The train was equipped with high-tech gear, including a satellite map that tracked the route and provided the latest and important information along the way. 

The special train typically carries two passenger cars used by top leaders. It has facilities for guards and other personnel. During the years of Kim Jong-il, various medical equipment and devices were also installed in the train. The total length of the train, or the number of carriages, indicates the purpose and duration of the leaders’ trip. 

It is said that North Korea’s outdated railroads and rolling stock do not get the proper maintenance, and trains run slowly due to safety concerns. The country has reportedly made great efforts to normalize the railway operation lately because railroads are absolutely important for economic and industrial development. 

Last year, North Korea reported that the Kim Chong-tae Electric Locomotive Works developed a new type electric locomotive of higher transport capacity, stressing that the country achieved innovation in the project to modernize railways. The North announced a new five-year economic development plan at the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party in January this year. The plan specifies that the basic goal of railway transportation is to ensure the smooth rail transport by modernizing railroads proactively and improving transportation in a revolutionary way. The purpose of North Korea’s railway modernization project is to improve inadequate relevant facilities and build the traffic network that is vital for economic growth. 

In 2014, North Korea announced a proposal to renovate the railways between Wonsan and Mt. Geumgang. Unlike in the past, it spelled out the estimated cost and profitability of the renovation project, just like when companies in capitalistic countries invest in something. The business proposal is definitely worth noting, as it conformed to the standards of Western countries. It shows that North Korea is attempting to embrace global standards, at least in railway operation. Clearly, the North regards railroads as an important transportation means that will enable the country to restore economic systems, earn foreign currency and join the international community. 

North Korea’s railway modernization project is unlikely to proceed smoothly, due to the pandemic-triggered border closure and restrictions in movement. The cross-border inter-Korean railways have been severed for decades. We hope the symbol of national division and tragedy will turn into the symbol of hope, peace and harmony as early as possible. 

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