With the Koreas in the news headlines at the moment, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore a story that has interested me for some time.
Elsewhere on this site I have asserted that the remaining class 143 electrics are the only (standard gauge) locos built for the former East Germany that remain in passenger service – however this is a little disingenuous on my part! It’s almost certain that there are more.
Following the withdrawal of the final examples by the nascent Deutsche Bahn in the mid-1990s, 31 class 220 diesel-electrics – Russian-built “M62” locos formerly known as Deutsche Reichsbahn class 120, not to be confused with the former Deutsche Bundesbahn class 220 diesel-hydraulics – were exported to North Korea, where by all accounts they remain in front-line service.
An ex-DR M62, now numbered 내연 706 at Pyongyang on 05/10/13 (Photo: Clay Gilliland from Wikipedia used under Creative Commons licence)
The country known as North Korea – officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – came into existence as a result of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Second World War; when the USA occupied the southern half of the Korean peninsula and the USSR the north. Separate governments were established in 1948, with North Korea under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung – although it is still not universally recognised as a state, notably by France. Korean hostilities have continued ever since, but if the headlines are to be believed, a peace treaty can be looked forward to later in 2018.
We in the West have an image of the “hermit kingdom” as a very secretive and possibly even paranoid land, but really we know very little about it, and that certainly fuels a great deal of interest in it. The UK government currently advise against “all but essential” travel there – although accompanied guided tours do occur, including ones tailored to a railway interest.
North Korea does have a fairly extensive railway network, a lot of which was constructed during the years of Japanese occupation. It certainly suffered in the same way as Poland, East Germany et al in terms of the Russians dismantling infrastructure to transport it back to the USSR to use it there. On top of that, extreme damage was caused to what remained during the Korean War. Although the Russians did not play an active role in that conflict, they played a very major one in North Korea’s post-war reconstruction, and this included its railways.
M62s in North Korea
As briefly touched on in this article (ostensibly about the Swedish-built NoHABs supplied to Hungary in 1963), the standard Russian medium-power diesel locomotive from the early 1960s was its “M62” type – 2,000 hp diesel-electrics with Kolomna power units. Comecon rules dictated that this rugged, spartan design was to be a “one size fits all” solution for any of the Comecon nations’ railway administrations that wanted a diesel loco in that power bracket. Consequently, they were supplied to Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Mongolia and Cuba as well as domestically. North Korea was not a Comecon member, but it did hold official “observer” status, and as part of the Russian effort to help rebuild the North Korean railways, they had a fleet built too.
Between 1967 and 1974, 64 class “K62” (the Korean version of the M62) locos were built in Voroshilovgrad for North Korea – 59 standard gauge, and 5 broad gauge to be used on the routes around Tumanggang at the Chinese border. The Koreans named these new locos “Sinsŏng”.
In the 1970s, the North Koreans reverse engineered one of the K62s, and then set about building their own “ersatz” version, the Kŭmsŏng class.
In the late 1990s, as a result of severe economic problems (brought about in no small part by the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe) partly restricting the availability of fuel for diesels and partly also prohibiting the repair of some of the diesels in the poorest condition, some members of both the Russian and North Korean-built fleets were converted to electric locos – the Kanghaenggun class (see photo here).
With a requirement for diesel locomotives, but the economic situation prohibiting the construction of new ones, North Korea employed a creative solution. With the post-1989 age seeing many of the Eastern European M62s laid up in favour of newer traction, and this type being the existing basic diesel traction of North Korea, they looked to import some of the recently-withdrawn machines.
Between 1996 and 1998, 31 class 220s were sent from Germany to North Korea (220 008 / 043 / 048 / 086 / 087 / 114 / 119 / 159 / 180 / 211 / 219 / 234 / 289 / 290 / 292 / 296 / 305 / 317 / 318 / 319 / 322 / 332 / 334 / 335 / 342 / 345 / 362 / 367 / 371 / 372 / 375).
In 2000, 13 Polish class ST44s followed – (ST44 72 / 103 / 152 / 325 / 518 / 549 / 649 / 673 / 840 / 929 / 937 / 947 / 999).
These locos have been renumbered into the 내연 7xx series, although I haven’t (yet) seen any details of how their new identities correspond to their old ones.
In addition, nine Slovakian class 781s made the move in 2000, which along with some ex-Russian machines are numbered in he 내연 8xx series.
Although travelling to experience these locos is not the easiest or even perhaps the wisest thing to do, it is at least nice to think that they are continuing to ply their trade long after they would otherwise have been cut up.
Have you ever been to North Korea? (Even better, have you travelled on any of the trains over there, or have any further information on these locos?). Please do leave me a comment below!