A Glimpse of North Korea's Railways

The following article by Florian Schmidt originally appeared in Continental Railway Journal, together with some pictures similar to those provided by Florian for these web pages. It will prove invaluable for anyone contemplating a visit or reading my own account of a February 2003 trip


North Korea is the country whose railways remain the most unexplored in the world by visiting enthusiasts, thanks to the political ideology of its government. Over the years, news reports on North Korea in Continental Railway Journal have been few and far between, and the only extended reference has been the two-part, largely historical, article on narrow gauge lines which appeared in issues 76 and 78. Now, however, a chink has appeared in the armour, and I have managed to make two recent railway-orientated visits to North Korea, have had a special steam train run for myself and have now organised a railfan tour, which included steam specials on both the standard and narrow gauge in February 2003. The first (and major) part of this article provides general information on the railway system. This is followed by a current news report.

The railway network: The Railways of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Choson Cul Minzuzui Inmingonghoagug, are the backbone and only viable carrier of bulk commodities within North Korea's transport infrastructure. More than 90% of the country's freight and 62% of its passenger traffic are carried by rail on a network of some 5,200km, of which roughly 4,500km are standard gauge. The network is split into five regional divisions, all of which report to the Pyongyang headquarters. No less than 80% of North Korea's railways are electrified, using 3,000V DC, generated by hydro-electric and coal-fired plants. This surprisingly high degree of electrification is the result of a comprehensive reconstruction of the railways after the Korean War, to facilitate the economic programme of the ruling Korean Workers Party, which was markedly skewed towards heavy industry. While the initial transport capacity was very much provided by a plethora of imported steam locomotives, President Kim II Sung's so-called "Juche" principle, loosely translated as "self-reliance", required an early quantum leap towards electric traction. (Editorial note: The "Railway Directory" quotes a system length of 8,533km standard gauge of which over 3,500km are electrified at 3,200V DC, and over 80% of traffic as electrically-hauled. However, the figure of 8,533 appears to be too large for what is known of the extent of the system, and possibly is a track-kilometre rather than a route-kilometre figure.)

Electric locomotives: In August 1961 the first Korean electric locomotive, called "Pulgungi", ie "Red Banner", had its roll-out. The Co-Co type, which cannot deny certain characteristics of the Czech E449.0 class, went into serial production shortly thereafter. It can be assumed that more than 100 of the reliable "Pulgungi 1" class were built for main-line passenger and freight traffic. During the 1960s, a second, slightly-modified, version called "Pulgungi 2" was introduced. Today, both types carry numbers in the 5xxx series.

Based on the "Pulgungi 2" , the "Kim Jong Thae" electric works developed a Bo-Bo+Bo-Bo twin loco for heavy duties on trunk lines in the mountainous central regions. Approximately 60 of these locos, carrying 6xxx numbers, were built in the 1980s. This breakthrough into heavy-haul technology was followed by the recent construction of an improved 7,000hp "Pulgungi 6" type, one of which is on display in the "Three Revolutions Exhibition" in the capital city of Pyongyang. The class can be seen, numbered 7xxx, in regular service on the lines into central Korea.

Other types noted during the author's two trips in 2001 and 2002 were a smaller Bo-Bo (4xxx) and an electric shunter (2xxx), both probably of Korean origin. The official news agency KCNA reported in November 1999 the production of an electric loco called "Grand Chollima March" (Chollima being the legendary one-thousand-miles horse of Korean mythology, comparable to Pegasus), without providing any technical details. Estimates suggest a total of about 300 electric loco on North Korea's railways. The logic behind the numbering scheme has not yet been ascertained, but it seems likely that the first digit, multiplied by a thousand, represents the horsepower.

Diesel locomotives: Unlike the electric loco fleet, diesel locos have been imported, mostly from the former Soviet Union. The first batch of 45 Co-Co locos of the M62 class arrived in the late 1960s, direct from Voroshilovgrad. Subsequently, members of the class were rebuilt in Korea, but the importation of 31 locos from Deutsche Bahn between 1996 and 1998, followed by six ST44 from Poland and three 781 from Slovakia in 2000, indicates that domestic production must have come to a standstill. These locos were seen around Pyongyang on shunting and secondary duties. Also for shunting duties, and for use in ports, an unknown number of the Soviet TEM1 Co-Co type were obtained in the late 1980s. The latest imports arrived in 2002, when China's Dalian Works delivered at least three DF4D locos, which are used for both express passenger and freight services. Orders from non-socialist countries were rare, because payment had to be made in hard currencies, whereas trade with socialist countries was often conducted on a barter basis. However, in 1983 Francorail delivered seven heavy Co-Co diesel-electric locos, followed by another five in 1987 from De Dietrich. 

Railcars: At least one, presumably self-made, electric railcar unit was seen in Pyongyang. The design of the silver-grey unit somewhat resembles the Soviet EM200 high-speed train, but it is unlikely that the North Korean railway administration will start tinkering with such technology in the near future, given the current state of the railway infrastructure.

Steam locomotives: Whilst many of the early steam locos on Korean soil, mostly Moguls, Prairie tank engines and Ten Wheelers, were imported from the USA, deliveries from the blossoming Japanese railway industry started to dominate the loco roster from the 1920s. The most important event within this context was the development of the famous Mika-1, in China known as the "Jiefang" ("Liberation") class. Originating from Alco's Schenectady Works in October 1918, a slightly-modified version was manufactured by Kawasaki, KSK and the South Manchurian Railway Works until 1935, before a standardised type was built in large numbers for the railways of Manchuria. Quite a number of them were deployed in Korea.
The first Mikado designed for the Korean railways dates back to 1919, and was again constructed by Alco. This was slightly lighter and had a smaller heating surface than the SMR type, and more than 420 were built to various specifications by KSK, Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo between 1926 and 1942. They became known as the Mika-2 to Mika-4 classes. Also, 460 locos of another, further-modified, design were built for the South Manchurian and the Manchurian National Railways as well as other administrations in occupied China between 1934 and 1945. Under the communist nomenclature they became "Jiefang 6", and at least 70 of them were delivered to North Korea in the early 1950s, ie during or right after the Korean War, to ease transport bottlenecks and help reconstruction. All Mika- and Jiefang-type engines received 6xxx numbers from the North Korean railway administration. The author was told during his August 2002 visit that the second digit (from 0 to 3) gives an indication of the specific Mika or JF type, but this could not be independently verified.

One of the most interesting chapters in North Korea's railway history is the arrival of US war locomotives of the Consolidation (2-8-0), Six Wheeler (0-6-0) and Decapod (2-10-0) types. The first were better known as the USATC S160 class, which Alco and Baldwin delivered to Europe and the USSR during World War II, and after the War and under the auspices of UNRRA, to China and South Korea. It is not known when, how many or from where SI 60s got into the northern half of the Korean peninsula. The most probable explanation is that a few dozen were given away by China either before or shortly after the foundation of the DPRK, possibly together with the Six Wheelers. Other sources have mentioned second-hand deliveries from eastern Europe. A bit more is known about the Decapods, of which 2,210 were shipped from Portland, USA, to Vladivostok under "Lease-Lend" arrangements in 1944/5. After the War, and once the Soviet locomotive industry got on its feet again, a lot of these locos, called "Soyusnitzys", ie "Allies" by the Soviets, were moved into Siberia, from where some were forwarded to North Korea. They carry 8xxx numbers. The USA war locos experienced only a few peaceful years before the Korean War started in 1950. The facts that North Korea's locomotive roster consisted almost entirely of "enemy", ie Japanese and US types, and that the SI 60s fought on both sides are surely an irony of Korea's military history.

During and after the Korean War, various East European railway administrations expressed their solidarity with the DPRK by the delivery of new steam locos. The Czech Skoda Works in 1951 sent 25 two-cylinder 475.1 class 4-8-2s, arguably one of the most technically advanced steam locos of that time. Poland followed, possibly in 1952, with three 2-6-2 passenger locos of class 0149 as well as an unknown number of TKt48 2-8-2TS. Romania followed with 2-10-0s of the 150.1 class, most likely in 1955 after the serial production of the type had commenced at ReSita Works. {Editorial note: The recently-published book "The Railways of Romania", in a list of locos exported by Resita, shows 24 0-6-0Ts as delivered to North Korea, but no 2-10-0s; China received ten 2-10-0s and ten 0-6-0Ts.) Finally the mighty FD (Felix Dzerdzhinsky) class 2-10-2 from the Soviet Union, of which 1,250 were exported to China in the 1950s and 1960s, were also reported in North Korea. While their arrival date is not known, they were possibly the last steam locos imported by or given to the DPRK. The fact that a genuine North Korean steam loco was never built in numbers is remarkable, but understandable in the light of Japanese colonialisation patterns, massive war damage, and the priorities set during the phase of reconstruction, including the already-cited leap into electric traction in the very early 1960s. During the mid-1980s, when CRJ reported 400 steam locos in North Korea, assumptions of a reasonably diversified and active steam fleet were probably justified. Despite the dominance of the "Red Banner" electric loco in its various forms, an estimated 15% of all railborne traffic was still handled by the old traction. The old Mika and Jiefang types could still be seen hard at work, together with US war and eastern European locos. With the exception of Pyongyang, many hubs and junctions across the country used steam locos on branches, for shunting duties and, occasionally, on trunk lines. Maintenance was reported as carried out at the three major workshops of Wonsan, Songjin and Chongjin.

Economic crises: The DPRK was hit very hard by the collapse of the socialist economies which, together with China, switched from barter trading to hard-currency settlement in the early 1990s, as well as various natural disasters including droughts and floods. Coal and oil, hitherto imported from the USSR and China, became scarce commodities, as domestic mines and hydro-electric power plants were unable to satisfy the demand imposed on North Korea's power grid. Energy shortages affected the railways badly which, in turn, were unable to deliver the raw and processed materials or the manufactured products necessary to keep the economy going. The DPRK had arrived in a vicious circle. Branch line services, especially, became more or less sporadic events, with the side-effect of steam engines remaining in their sheds. Over the past 18 months, however, the economic situation has improved somewhat. After having contracted by more than 50% in the previous decade, the North Korean economy managed to post a GDP gain of 3.7% in 2001, with an obvious impact on the railway system.

While the number of steam locos has by now certainly declined from the reported 400, it can be assumed that a significant number are still owned and operated. Within recent years, Mika and Jiefang types have been observed in the border town of Sinuiju, and in Sinanju along the trunk line from China to Pyongyang, in Puksinhyon in the mountainous heartlands, in the port city of Nampho, in Kaesong near the De-militarised Zone (DMZ), and in the north-eastern city of Rajin, where Decapod operations have also been seen.

Narrow gauge railways: The DPRK inherited a substantial number of 762mm gauge lines. Especially on the Haeju peninsula, a comprehensive network had been constructed from 1925, with additions being made until 1965. It was only in the 1980s that regauging to standard and closures reduced significantly the use of 2-8-2s of the colonial Japanese-built "Naki-ha" type. Seven survivors have been reported on the remaining Sariwon - Haeju - Upehori section.

Forestry railways: Three major systems have been reported, one of them to the east of Kanggye using 2-6-2s of Japanese origin. Another was situated north of Hungnam/Hanghum, leading to the reservoirs of Chongjin and Pujon and further north. Back in 1982, visiting forestry specialists reported more than 80 steam locos, predominantly 0-8-0s of Chinese and Soviet origin, probably dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Some of them could still be active. Heavy Japanese 2-8-2Ts, built between 1934 and 1944 by Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo, were confirmed in the area of Musan, near the Chinese border, as recently as 1997.

Industrial railways: Visits to industrial areas in the DPRK are impracticable, making an assessment of steam fleets all but impossible. Pictures in North Korean publications do show steam locos in such areas, and it is possible that the national railway system disposed of some of its more exotic locos to industrial undertakings. Observed in the steelworks of Chinnampo, Songjin and Chongjin have been 0-6-0s of domestic origin, S160s and several 2-6-2 types, while 2-8-2s apparently serve a chemical enterprise in Hungnam. It seems certain that there is a lot more to be discovered on such railways, though operations are probably vastly reduced as a result of the economic crisis.

Steam observations, 2001/2

Nampho: On 23rd August 2002 the author's hosts arranged for him a special steam train from the west coast port city of Nampho, 55km south-west of Pyongyang, to Cholgwang, a railway hub in the western flatlands, a further 50km away. The locomotive was immaculate "Chung-gi" (the Korean word for steam locomotive) 2-8-2 6083, allocated to Nampho shed, where sightings of various Mikados had been reported during previous years. Shunting duties in the port, however, are now performed by diesel locos. Soviet-made TEM 569 was seen in September 2001; another unidentified diesel in August 2002. The line from Nampho to Cholgwang leads across the West Sea Barrage, an 8km-long dam with three locks, into an attractive hilly scenery with numerous paddy fields. The tracks looked barely used, but both diesel and steam locos were stated to perform on regular passenger and freight services on the line.

Cholgwang: This village, with a population of hardly more than a few thousand, is the hub of at least three standard gauge lines, and features a fairly sizeable loco-shed. Traffic appeared to be at a low ebb, but the station master mentioned "three daily passenger services, most of which are hauled by Japanese-made Mika". The loco-shed has an allocation of 13 steam engines of which 11 are standard gauge and two are 762mm gauge. Seven of the former were present on 23rd August, four of them serviceable (6026/53, 6126/52), two under repair and one derelict. Maintenance, including heavy repair work, is carried out in the depot workshop. The locos were reportedly Japanese-made Mikas, although their frames looked more Jiefang style. Each loco has allocated to it three crews of three plus two reserve staff, ie a total of 11 personnel. A surprise discovery was a 2.5km narrow gauge line into a nearby mine, apparently ore, for which there are two Naki-ha 2-8-2s. One of these, seen shunting in the station, was 505, with trailing wheels and axle missing, making it effectively a 2-8-0. The Naki-ha type was built during the Japanese colonial era, almost certainly in the late 1930s.

Puksinhyon: This village, about 110km north-east of Pyongyang, lies not far from Mount Myohang, one of five famous mountains of Korea and location of the International Friendship Exhibition, a display of presents made by foreign dignitaries to the previous and current leaders of the DPRK. At least six Mikados were seen here, and they are used for branch line services to Unan and Pukchin.

Sinanju: This important junction on the Pyongyang to Sinuiju line has a steam depot on the right-hand side as viewed from a train leaving the station northbound. In 2001 about five locos were seen: some cold Mikas and a serviceable Jiefang-type 6336. A year on, in August 2002, only 6336 remained, but still in very good condition. The infrastructure, including water and coal supply, looked utilized and steam-hauled services on nearby branches are a possibility.

Sinuiju: Visitors in transit have repeatedly reported steam shunting in Sinuiju, which is close to the Chinese border. There was still such activity in 2001, but by August 2002 only immaculate Mikado 172, cold in the shed, was to be seen. This curiously-numbered loco is the depot's star engine and features huge smoke deflectors. The late President Kim Il Sung used to take a ride on its footplate. Photography in Sinuiju is strongly discouraged.

The foregoing article gives rise to a number of obvious queries, and only scratches the surface of what currently exists in North Korea. Comments or further information would be very welcome.


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Rob Dickinson

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