|Travel by train is a casual affair in North Korea. This Train has stopped near Heasong City due to electrical outage.
I know that people around the world believe that there is no freedom of speech in North Korea. This is not wrong.
However, we do have one - and only one - exceptional place where we can enjoy freedom of speech. This is in our trains. We have a strict status-oriented society, which means rigid discriminations of rank. So our trains have special compartments for top officials. Interestingly, however, such discriminations of rank disappear in the trains. Once we board a train, everybody turns into a social commentator. And those amateur commentators may be as good as any professional.
Popular "Reference Newspaper"
General citizens discuss topics they hear about on the radio, or in rumors. Stories by top officials are very popular, because they are based on the "Reference Newspaper" distributed only among top officials. The "Reference Newspaper" is filled with information intended strictly for the top officials only. This Newspaper provides detailed, objective commentary on news around the world, which is more detailed even than that of Japanese newspapers.
Top official passengers who know more foreign news or more information on domestic incidents become popular in a train. Lots of passengers come to such a passenger with liquor and snacks. They admire persons with lots of information.
Liquor and snacks are shared among them. Liquor, in particular, is indispensable. For the passengers, it is clearly very important to procure food and drinks before boarding a train.
Although they drink and eat and enjoy talking while on the train, it is highly unlikely they will ever see each other again once they leave the train, so they do not hesitate to express their frustrations. No one specifically names any of their leaders, but they criticize the policies of the government and the corruption of officials. And they express their worries for the future.
True, they may discuss sensitive topics involving other countries and someone could inform on them to the authorities. But even if they were to be interrogated, they would likely be released if they insist that they obtained such information in a train. So, it may not be an exaggeration to say that trains in North Korea are that country's version of the Internet.
Terrible Train Environment but Still Fun
Thus, trains function as an ideal place to satisfy the North Korean people's insatiable curiosity. The terrible train conditions actually increase their chances of getting information through chatting.
For example, it is 600 km from Pyongyang to Tumen station, which is on the Russian border. This means 3 nights and 4 days by train during the winter. This gives the passengers plenty of time to get know and chat with each other.
In some cases, young men and women have been known to meet, start up a romantic conversation and eventually end up getting married. And thanks to the frequent power failures, traveling by train takes a long time to reach a destination. It is exhausting, but it is still fun.
In North Korea, we look forward to gaining access to information, especially any exciting stories from the "Reference Newspaper." I get opportunities to travel by train for about 4 months out of the year, and even now I dream of a day when I can take trains from North Korea to Seoul. Maybe someday I will even travel to Japan.
Photo title: Train stopped near Heasong City due to electrical outage.