‘How on Earth did I end up working in Pyongyang University for Foreign Studies?’
That’s the question I knew you’d want to ask right off the bat. And fair enough, it’s a good one. Truth be told, it was a crazy impulse decision. After years of working as an ESL teacher, almost exclusively teaching newly migrated Koreans English so they’d have an easier time adapting, I was approached by the Canadian government with what they described as an exciting opportunity to strengthen relations between our two nations. As a third-generation Canadian Korean, with relatives a few generations back from both sides of the border, I actually bought into this idea fairly quickly, agreeing within a couple of days of first being asked.
“Are you fucking crazy?” asked uncle Tony, one of my few non-Korean relatives back home in Vancouver.
“I know how it sounds,” I replied, “but I’d basically be doing the job I know and love. Plus, I’d have the Canadian government watching my back.”
“Don’t be so sure of that.” Then, after a quick chug on his bottle of Molson, he added, “Don’t count on anyone having your back, Sung-min.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Tony. But I just need something exciting like this in my life right now.”
“If it’s that kind of excitement you’re looking for, I’ll take you down to East Hastings Street after 11:00pm on a Saturday night.”
I gave him a shrug and attempted to laugh off that comment. He had a point, though: this was a giant leap into the unknown and could be more dangerous than I was prepared to admit. I guess that’s why I’d come to Tony first. He’d worked hard to gain acceptance into our family when he’d married my aunt Hye-jin and had earned the respect of everyone, having striven to learn everything he could about Korean culture. As such, I knew that he’d understand the gravity of what I was about to commit to while also offering advice from a more distanced perspective.
“I have to get out of this city for a while, Tony. I’m sure you can understand that.”
He nodded, remembering all we’d talked about over the past year or so and everything I’d been through.
“Does it have to be so goddamn far away, though? And does it have to be North fucking Korea of all places?”
“I think it’s something I just have to do at this point.”
Again, he nodded. He knew me well enough to see that my decision was already made.
It seems hard to believe that that conversation was less than a year ago: it feels as though I’ve lived several lifetimes since then. Suffice to say that there was a lot more discussion with the rest of my family about my ‘decision’, but they eventually acquiesced. And so it was that I arrived here last September to begin my position as an English teacher in the University for Foreign Studies.
I’ll fill you in with more about the job as I go on, but I’m guessing that right now you want to know what it’s actually like living here, don’t you?
Let me begin by saying this: everything you think you know about North Korea is both right and wrong. The stories you’ve heard all have some essence in the truth, but almost all have been warped by whichever side it is that’s either trying to portray the country as either good or bad. So, let me just clarify that not all the men have the exact same haircut as Kim Jong Un, loads of people have cellphones, there is internet here, you can take photographs, and there’s an annoying amount of traffic in rush hour in Pyongyang. Oh, and the subway isn’t some elaborate charade to fool foreigners… but I’ll be discussing that particular aspect of life soon enough.
So, while it defies Western expectations in many ways, it’s still a weird and not always wonderful country. I’m here to talk to you about some of the bizarre stuff I’ve witnessed during my time here. Let’s begin with Pyongyang’s infamous subway system. This won’t be the last time I talk about the Pyongyang Metro, but it seems as good a place as any to start.
The system itself consists of only two lines. First, there’s the Hyŏksin Line runs from Kwangbok Station in the southwest up to Ragwŏn Station in the northeast. Then there’s the Chollima Line, which runs north from Puhŭng Station along the banks of the Taedong River to Pulgŭnbyŏl Station, the end of the line. From Pulgŭnbyŏl, it’s less than a half-mile walk to my accommodation at the University, making it a convenient way to travel around and get back home.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories about how the Metro is some kind of Truman Show gimmick to fool foreigners into thinking the place is way more advanced than it is. There’s actually a good reason for this. Back in the day, foreign tourists were only allowed to travel between Puhŭng Station and Yŏnggwang Station, basically from one stop to the next. These stations remain the most beautifully decorated in the entire Metro system, so it’s easy to imagine why you could only get to see these two back in the 70s and 80s. The whole network has been open for the past seven years or so, meaning it’s easy to consign this myth to the history books. In short: it’s real, it’s very busy and it’s dirt cheap, meaning I use it all the time.
It’s one particular occasion that I want to talk about today, though. The time when I encountered ‘Gicha-e tan yeoja:’ The woman on the train.
“Whatever you do, don’t take the 00:01am train, Seonsaengnim.”
Jee-min was one of my brightest students and was clearly going to play an essential role in running her country in the decades to come. However, on this night, her role was to introduce me to the secret underbelly of Pyongyang nightlife.
Whatever images you might conjure up of nighttime entertainment in North Korea, I’m here to tell you it’s worse. Officially sanctioned nightlife is limited to two hotels: the Yanggakdo Hotel and the Koryo Hotel, both of which are resplendent with casinos, karaoke and nightclubs, none are which are open to locals. This pretty much explains the massive consumption of Soju in the country: there isn’t much else to do to occupy your evenings. This is also why I found myself getting talked into going to one of the unofficial underground clubs organized by the youth of the city. Technically they’re illegal, meaning that everyone attending takes a great risk in doing so, hence a lot of precautions are taken and there’s a lot of soundproofing for the venues.
As much as I’d hated my one and only Koryo Hotel karaoke night, I wasn’t much into booming electronic music either, but it was honestly great to be away from my room for a while and experience something different. At this point, I’d been in the country for about six weeks and was moving past the initial elation into the next stage of culture shock, when you start to accept your surroundings and things begin to feel normal again. This meant it was the perfect time to try something new.
Jee-min was keeping an eye on me and could tell this wasn’t my kind of thing. I noticed that it was almost half eleven, so when she asked me if I was having fun, I took it as an opportunity to excuse myself and make my way back to the University campus.
“OK, but make sure you don’t take the 00:01am train.”
“Only she rides that train.”
“The woman on the train, Seonsaengnim.” She looked at me sheepishly, as though she were somehow ashamed of what she was saying to me. “It is not logical to believe in such superstitions, but it is something we all observe. Only she may ride the train at one minute past midnight.”
“Well… OK, then.” I was at a loss for anything else to say.
“I am serious, my teacher. You can take any train, but not that one.”
She wasn’t messing about here. Whatever it was that was wrong about that train, she clearly believed it wholeheartedly.
“Well, I guess I only have to wait a few minutes until the next one. We’ll talk about this more when I see you in class on Monday, OK?”
“Yes. Stay safe, Seonsaengnim.”
And with that, she turned and rejoined the thronging crowd.
It had taken me a fair few minutes to make my way from the underground club to Puhŭng Station, so I’d just assumed that it would be sometime after midnight when I got there. The journey would be a simple one: get on at the first stop, then get off at the last.
The place was ridiculously empty. ‘Was it always like this at night?’ I wondered to myself. As I said, there aren’t many things keeping most folk out this late. Work had gotten me a Metro pass as part of the deal; I just had to remember to refill it from time to time; not such a big deal when each journey costs 5 Won, the equivalent of about half an American cent. I scanned my pass, entered the station, and made my way to the one and only platform.
The station was unnaturally quiet; I mean proper post-apocalypse, last-man-on-Earth deserted. As a foreigner, I was used to occasional ‘company’ in the form of government officials randomly following my movements through the city, so this total juxtaposition was a novel feeling. I’d never been this alone in Pyongyang. Within a couple of minutes, a train pulled in. Not one single passenger got off. With the platform still empty, it looked like I would be getting my own personal train ride home on the exotically named ‘Underground Electric Vehicle No. 1’. After having to regularly deal with the half-million or so people who ride the Metro every day, it was pleasant to have my pick of any seat. I made myself comfortable and got ready for the journey.
After a couple of stations, I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t alone after all. Sitting some way down the carriage from me was a young woman. How I hadn’t seen her when I got on was beyond me. ‘She must’ve fallen asleep and not gotten off in Puhŭng,’ I thought to myself. She was gonna be pissed when she found herself in Pulgŭnbyŏl! I guessed that I’d drifted off for a few minutes there, too; she had probably gotten on at Yonggwang or Ponghwa. I didn’t pay it any further mind. Next stop, Sŭngni Station.
As we pulled into Sŭngni, I noticed a couple of strange things. Firstly, this station was also a ghost town. Not only were the no passengers waiting to board, but there was also no Metro staff. The Metro system prides itself on providing an efficient and pleasant experience, meaning there are always workers around to make sure everything runs like clockwork. What the hell was going on here? The second thing I noticed was that the young woman was no longer at the end of the carriage; she was now – at least to my mind – noticeably closer to where I was sitting. Well, it happens, I thought. Perhaps it was a dirty seat, or there was a draft coming from somewhere. People move seats for such reasons.
After a short while the carriage doors dragged themselves closed, and we pulled out of Sŭngni. Only four more stations, then a short walk back to the campus. My mind drifted once more, before returning with a jolt. ‘Had that woman moved again?’ I was sleepy and had downed a few glasses of Soju, so I wasn’t in the clearest states of mind, but I was still certain that she had moved. She was still some way down the carriage but was definitely closer. Without making it too obvious, I stared at the seat she was occupying and made a quick mental note of how many there were between us. She was 15 or so seats away from me, sitting on the opposite side. As casually as I could, I glanced over to her; she was staring straight ahead, her focus seemingly unshakeable. She might have simply had too much Soju, I thought, reassuringly. That would, after all, make two of us.
The next stop was probably a couple minutes away. T'ŏngil Station; funnily enough this translates as ‘unification’. I was starting to think that the last thing I wanted was to be unified with the woman on this train. I suddenly recalled what Jee-min had said to me before I left: “Make sure you don’t take the 00:01am train.” I hadn’t actually checked the time at any point. After all, there’s a train every five minutes, so missing one wasn’t going to cause much of a problem. What time had I got on this train?
T'ŏngil proved to be as barren as every station before it: no one got on. I also double-checked to see if anyone got off; no one did. In my peripheral vision I could see the woman. By now I was starting to feel an unnatural level of unease about this. I had a strong feeling that I should under no circumstances look at her, but I could also sense that she had once again moved closer to me. Trying to push it to the back of my mind, I reassured myself that the upcoming station was Kaesŏn, and that there were only two more stops until the end of the line. Was she really moving closer to me? Was I so sure of where she’d been to begin with? I had been very drowsy and not really paying attention, after all. Maybe it was all in my head. I resolved to push these ridiculous thoughts out of my head and wait things out before getting off at the end of the line. My mind wandered once more.
Kaesŏn Station; I’m almost home now. Fuck: this station was completely empty, too. Had the entire city been evacuated for some reason? Surely there must have been some late-night stragglers waiting to make their way home? I reminded myself that I’d never previously used the Metro this late at night, so this could all be perfectly normal. That didn’t stop me scanning the entire platform looking - hoping - that someone would get on this train. I saw a clock at the far end of the platform. It was coming up to half past twelve. What time had I got on this train? By my reckoning, it was probably just after midnight.
Just like that, Jee-min’s words were once again drilling their way into my head: “Make sure you don’t take the 00:01am train.”
‘You’re being a fool,’ I told myself. She’s just a drunk woman on a train is all. As probable as that likelihood still remained, there was no mistaking the fact that she was, somehow, only about a half dozen seats away from me now. Surely I would’ve at least sensed the only other passenger on this train getting up and walking to another seat? She was now seated so it was impossible not to see her out of the corner of my eye. She was still staring straight ahead with that same relentless focus. ‘Well, at least she seems to have no interest in me,’ I thought. Ok, Jŏnu is at most three minutes away from here. Truth be known, I could get off there and it would only add a few minutes’ walk to my journey. Let’s see if anyone gets on at Jŏnu.
Jŏnu Station: essentially, the heart of the Pyongyang Metro. From here you could take a quick walk to Chŏnsŭng Station and join the Hyŏksin Line. This meant that as we pulled in there was one thing I knew for certain: if any station was guaranteed to be occupied at this time of night, it was this one. We came to a stop and the carriage doors opened. Again, not a soul in sight. My mind was racing. How could there be no one waiting at the transfer station? Before I had the chance to regain my composure and think about getting off, the doors had scraped shut and we were on the move once more. Whatever happened now, we were on our way to the final stop and the end of my journey this evening. Pulgŭnbyŏl: the ultimate destination for both of us, it would seem.
And this was the moment when my peripheral vision confirmed what I’d been silently dreading for the past few stops: she was standing up and slowly ambling towards me. She was impossible for me to ignore and she must have known this, too. Was this her? Was this the woman on the train? I maintained my focus on the floor of the train, but by this point she was now standing directly in front of me. Against my better judgment, I slowly raised my head and looked her in the eye.
Weird, inasmuch as not weird at all. There was nothing particularly strange about this woman’s appearance, other than the fact that she had chosen to stand directly in front of a random passenger – the only other passenger – on this train. What should I do? My mind was racing once again. Just as I’d resolved to ask her if she needed my assistance in any way, she beat me to it.
‘‘So, I guess you like riding the train alone at night.’’
What? What on Earth was that supposed to mean? Had she really just spoken to me in English? I’d well and truly sobered up by this point, but my mind was nevertheless unable to process any of what was happening.
‘‘I’m sorry, what?’’
‘‘The train,’’ she repeated, ‘‘I guess you like riding the train alone at night.’’
‘‘Um, well, I guess it’s just the most convenient way to get home, given how close I live to the station.’’
Nothing. No response.
She just stared at me for what felt like minutes, before turning around, walking to the end of the carriage, opening the door and disappearing into the carriage beyond. I took a series of deep breaths and tried to make sense of what had just happened. Was she merely some weirdo who’d had too much alcohol and was unable to recognize reasonable personal boundaries? After all, I’d had many such encounters with people ‘under the influence’ back in Vancouver. If she was this mysterious ‘woman on the train,’ then what was all the fuss about? Whatever the case, we’d be pulling into Pulgŭnbyŏl within a minute or two.
Here it was: Pulgŭnbyŏl Station. By now it was no surprise that it was also completely devoid of life as I alighted. Maybe the whole of Pyongyang really did go to bed early, even on the weekends. As I stepped away from the train, I looked to my left to get a look at the carriages she could’ve been in. She hadn’t left the train; I would’ve seen her for sure. No: the platform was deserted. I’d seen her move into the next carriage. Whatever else there was about this evening that was cloudy in my mind, of that, I was sure. Time to go home and spend the whole of Sunday sleeping off this bizarre night.
As I made my way out of the station, I was suddenly submerged by a crowd of would-be passengers, as many as you’d ever see at the busiest of rush hours. What’s more, every single person who passed me headed towards the train regarded me with a look of utter astonishment and horror plastered across their faces. Being someone with distinctly South Korean characteristics, I was used to being regularly stared at, but this was on a whole new level. Deciding that I’d had more than my fair share of weird for one evening, I headed straight home.
Monday was an odd day in class. No one seemed focused at all. More intriguingly, everyone appeared to be trying to ask questions to Jee-min, each query being met by her glancing worriedly in my direction. After class she waited for everyone else to file out, before approaching me.
“Seonsaengnim, may I ask a question?”
It was always a nice surprise when students did this at the end of class. Well, almost always.
“Sure, Jee-min. What is it?”
She looked nervous. Whatever it was, the interaction with the other members of the class had clearly perturbed her.
“My teacher, how was your journey on Saturday night?”
Strange that she would ask this question.
“Strange that you would ask that question. It was really weird, to be honest.’’
‘‘Did you take the one past midnight train, Seonsaengnim?’’
She was cutting directly to the chase.
‘‘Well, I still really don’t know. All I can tell you is that there was just me and one other person on the train, and that she was acting odd.’’
She looked at me pensively. Whatever she was going to say next required her to compose herself first.
‘‘My teacher, many people are talking about a man who emerged from the station after taking the one past midnight train. It was you, I believe.’’
There was something about Jee-min that told me I could trust her. She had an immense sense of self-belief and assurance for one so young. She would undoubtedly do her country proud one day. And so I told her everything. She listened judiciously to all that I told her. After no small amount of time contemplating my words, she responded.
‘‘Seonsaengnim, you are a lucky man. In the stories about ‘Gicha-e tan yeoja’ we are told that she was an unfortunate woman who used the the Chollima Line in the very first days of its existence. The legends tell that a group of men approached her, and asked if she liked riding the train alone at night. It is not certain what her response was, but it is believed she either said yes or no.
‘‘In the early days of the metro system, many people were afraid to use it because of their fear of demons existing below ground. As a result, the train was almost deserted. The men took advantage of this and did terrible things to her. Her body was later found at Pulgŭnbyŏl Station.’’
She took pause for a moment, looking at me, trying to gauge my reaction.
‘‘Well, I said something about using it because it’s convenient. Whoever this person was didn’t seem to like that, and she turned around and walked off without another word.’’
She inhaled deeply before replying.
‘‘Seonsaengnim, again I say to you that you are a lucky man.’’ Another gulp of air, then she continued: ‘‘Legends tell us that all who say yes or no are brutally murdered as revenge for what happened to her. Only those who do not respond in this way are forgiven.’’
This was too much to take.
‘‘So, you’re telling me that I’m only alive because of the answer I gave?’’
Again, she looked somewhat sheepish while responding.
‘‘It is a legend, Seonsaengnim. I do not use my logic to come to this conclusion. I will say now that I am happy you are alive.’’
Life went on and slowly the whispered gossip and the stares dissipated. What happened that night? I’m not sure. It could’ve just been a random weirdo on a late-night train. There’s no solid evidence to suggest otherwise. I will say this much, though. I’ve never taken the one past midnight train again.
Let me know if you’d like to hear more about my adventures in north Korea. I’ve been invited on a trip to the Koguryo Tombs in the coming weeks. I’m sure that will give me plenty to talk about.
Written by DariusMcCorkindale