Mobilizing people to revamp aging railway stations

The people must work for free, but overall the project is viewed positively.
By Ahn Chang Gyu for RFA Korean
2024.01.12
Mobilizing people to revamp aging railway stations A railway worker looks up at a portrait of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung at a railway station in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, in 2013.
Jacky Chen/Reuters

A North Korean province is requiring people to give its aging railway stations a facelift, replacing worn down furniture installed in the 1960s, adding fresh coats of paint to drab facades and retiling the walls that have deteriorated over the years, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

It’s the latest example of the government “mobilizing” the people – that is, forcing them to work for free on a government project. However, many residents are happy with the move, as it is making the stations – the first impression travelers get about a town – less of an eyesore.

Much of the Korean peninsula’s rail lines were built during the 1910-45 Japanese colonial era. Facilities built during this time were in use during and after the 1950-53 Korean War, but in the more prosperous South, most of the older colonial-era stations have been replaced with more modern facilities. 

But in the North, these old stations are still in use in many places, and the cash-strapped North Korean government  has not been able to maintain them very well.

Now, the government in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong is holding a competition, pitting cities and counties in the province against each other to see who can beautify their railway stations the best, a provincial official told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. All told, there are about 90 railway stations in the province.

“Station modernization is not a project to demolish and rebuild old buildings, but to renovate the exterior walls of existing stations, beautify the surrounding area, and properly equip facilities inside of the station,” he said. 

“In many areas, old tiles on the exterior walls of train stations are being torn down and re-plastered,” he said. “Also, there are cases of replacing leaky roofs or replacing old narrow windows with wide glass windows.”

He said that many of the residents were tapped to plant trees and build a park around the station, and that the government was not ordering the people to donate money for the project, which is rare these days. 

The station beautification project may only be limited to North Hamgyong, as RFA has not been able to confirm similar initiatives in other parts of the country. 

It is therefore possible that the move in North Hamgyong might correspond to a plan to reopen Chinese and Russian tourism to resorts in the province, utilizing the railway instead of busing the tourists in, analysts said. 

Positive reaction

The public’s reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, a resident of the province told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“I went to a well-known station recently and  there were not enough places to sit, and it was difficult to find drinking water,” he said. “Now, there is a new waiting room, new chairs outside, and a small park.” 

At Kilju station, in the southern part of the province, residents worked to replace old wooden chairs, many of which were falling apart, he said.

“The wooden chairs had been in use since the 1960s and 1970s and there were so many bed bugs in the wood that residents could not sit properly,” he said.

The North Korean government has been very public about modernizing buildings in the capital Pyongyang, he said, but people are glad that the provinces are also getting some attention.

“The train station is the face of the region, so renovating it seems like a really good thing,” he said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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