Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cars in North Korea - Part 1

The little tank thing on the back of the truck is the wood-burning steam engine.
What comes to your mind when you think of cars in North Korea? Probably those old, old cars from 60~70s running on wood fuels, and a few Mercedes for Kim Jong-Il and his henchmen. 

Most people know very well by now that North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. They are also the most isolated and the least known. I've put together some interesting things about North Korea's cars in a two-part article. The part 1 is going to be about why these cars are so old, and some interesting by-product of the old cars in North Korea. The part 2 is going to be about what kind of cars are there in North Korea. More specifically, what cars North Korea has produced so far - did you know that they have their own car brand, Victory?

Here is part 1, I hope you find it interesting.
After the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, both South and North Korea were largely devastated by the war all across the peninsula. North had Soviet Union's support, and South had USA's. At first, both nations grew at a similar speed, though most older Koreans tell me North Korea had it better for almost 2 decades. Then around 1970, South Korea began outgrowing North Korea.
Click image for larger view
Notice that North Korean economy stayed pretty much constant after 1970 and only plunged more then stayed constant after the fall of Soviet Union. 6 decades after the war, South Korea has nearly 40 times the GDP compared to North Korea. 

So this inferior economy brought a new trend to North Korea during the 1980s : Don't buy new things, just keep using old things. Using things for a very long time became a virtue. There is a story in North Korea, that Kim Jong-Il (the current leader of North Korea) had a shelf when he was in college, and the kind and sweet way he treated and saved the work shelf warmed all laborers' hearts. The shelf was famously numbered 26.

We can all tell this is just another BS propaganda. But in North Korea they started 'Number 26 Exemplary Behavior Movement' named after Kim Jong-Il's shelf, to encourage people to save old things and use them as long as humanly possible. 

For cars, it didn't matter if new cars had much better fuel efficiency, better safety, or better look. They just encouraged people to keep what they have, and keep using it. To encourage this behavior, they started sticking stars on old cars to praise the long usage.
This one has... probably 40~50 stars, it seems.
Each star represents 50,000 kilometers (~31,000 miles). Personal cars generally don't have that many cars because there are not that many acceptable roads for cars, and very few own cars anyway. Buses, trains and trucks on the other hand, are the main form of transportation in North Korea. It's not difficult to find buses or trains with 40~50 stars stuck on them (2 million to 2.5 million kilometers, or 1.25 million miles to 1.55 million miles). If a vehicle has that many stars, it probably has been in service for at least 2~3 decades.

Getting a driver's license in North Korea takes 6~12 months of traffic school. They learn everything from how to drive a car and how to fix cars too. Most cars in North Korea were made 1960s according to some sources, so they're pretty darn crappy machines to begin with. It's pretty astonishing that they still work at all. Of course, all this stuff do not apply to the cars high officials drive around - mostly Mercedes, gifts from Kim Jong-Il.

I'm short on time, so I'll have to cut here. Wait for the next part! (I have a feeling that this is going to be more than just two parts... the amount of information I have gathered is A LOT.)


  1. More likely they can't get their hands on new vehicles than they are willing to keep existing. Take a look at tires. In civilized world, tires likes these are considered unsafe.

  2. Maybe they're just smart enough not to buy a new vehicle every ten years via financing?