Chandeliers, marble and propaganda: Inside North Korea’s metro system

Story highlights

Hong Kong photographer Elaine Li captured her experience on North Korea's subway system

Li draws comparisons between a commute on Pyongyang's trains and the subway in her hometown

CNN  — 

Buried 100 meters (328 feet) underground, the Pyongyang Metro is one of the deepest commuter systems in the world. It’s also one of the world’s most mysterious.

Only a few thousand tourists enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea each year. Visits are only granted through specific tour groups, itineraries are heavily planned by tour guides, and certain areas are strictly off limits, so everyday life in North Korea is often hidden from outsiders.

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But when 25-year-old photographer Elaine Li made her first trip to the North Korea’s capital in October, what struck her most was the sense of familiarity.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Li is no stranger to city life. Her portfolio – largely filled with images of skyscrapers, traffic jams and amusing commutes – has built the young photographer a following of over 133,000 on Instagram.

While schools, restaurants and city landmarks were all on her itinerary, it was a ride in the subway that felt closest to home. She spoke to CNN Style about the experience.

CNN: What were your first impressions of the Pyongyang Metro?

Elaine Li: The first thing I noticed was that, although the stations are very dimly lit, the interiors are very fancy. You see chandeliers on the ceilings, marble pillars and paintings of Kim Jong Il.

The next thing I noticed was the newspaper stands that are on display across the platform itself – you’ll see people standing around and reading them.

Read: Why Pyongyang is the perfect science fiction set

This was all very interesting to me because, in cosmopolitan cities like Hong Kong, we are bombarded with advertising. In Pyongyang, they are bombarded with propaganda.

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Were you given any restrictions when photographing the subway?

In general I had no issues getting permission to take photographs on the trains or stations.

The tour guides accompanied us for the whole commute, but on the platform we were free to roam around.

As for traveling on the train itself, we were only allowed to travel for a few stops, and only got off at certain stations.

The only restriction was that we were not allowed to take photographs from inside the tunnels, I am not sure why.

Read: Beneath the surface of North Korea

What was it like on the trains?

The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. It seemed so tame – no one was saying anything – and perhaps could even be described as a little lifeless.

But then I came back to the subway in Hong Kong and I realized … people here lack communication as well.

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Even though the Hong Kong trains are louder and it seems more lively at first, the reality is that commuters here do not communicate. They are glued to their smartphones. In Pyongyang I did see some people on their smartphones, but far fewer.

Instead they were looking around, seemed almost shy, but not really talking to each other either. I realized that, in a way, this commute was just like commutes in so many other Asian cities.

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Did you interact with any commuters?

At one point I almost missed my train because I was taking a picture of a female conductor while the rest of my tour group was on the train – and the door slammed shut.

The conductor I was photographing then whistled to the train driver, indicating that he should open the door and let me on.

Another interaction was with an elderly man. I wanted to give him my seat so patted him on the shoulder, but at first he didn’t understand. So another lady communicated to him that I wanted to give him my seat.

Read: A look beyond Hong Kong’s postcard exterior

These interactions were definitely the most interesting parts of my journey. They were so small but felt so human. It reminded me that wherever we are, we all have these common human interests, such as taking care of our elderly.

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What has the response been to your photography?

It’s been very heavily mixed. Some people say these images are eye opening, and show a side to the country that they don’t usually get to see. Others ask why I would ever go to North Korea in the first place, then claim my images are propaganda and that I’m sponsored by North Korea.

Read: Take a 3D Tour of North Korea

The preconceptions that people have were really reflected on the comments I’ve received. But I just wanted to document what was in front of me, and share what I experienced as honestly as possible.