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Inside North Korea

Road Traffic in N. Korea



Many North Korean defectors who have resettled in South Korea say that it was difficult for them to adapt to different road signs when they first came to the South. We can’t help but wonder how different traffic culture is in the two Koreas. Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s road traffic from Ahn Byung-min, president of the Korea Economic Cooperation Institute. 

North Korea adopted the Road Traffic Law in 2004. The law specifies the principle of driving to the right on the road, the principle of giving priority to pedestrians, tramways and buses, and the principle of slow cars giving ways to fast cars. Animal-drawn carts should only run on designated roads at designated times. Carts are prohibited from being parked on bridges, and those without waste boxes are not allowed to operate. Interestingly, cow-or horse-drawn carts are still used in North Korea as a means of transportation. 

In the North, cars have been used more widely since Kim Jong-un came to power, in line with the spread of markets. Naturally, traffic accidents have increased, prompting the authorities to conduct road safety education actively. They distributed traffic accident warnings nationwide in 2013 and 2015. They designated drunk driving, unlicensed driving and hit-and-run cases as acts of violating traffic order, stressing that those acts will hinder the construction of a socialist economic power. 

North Korea strictly enforces traffic rules. Cars that have obstructed the passage of vehicles or pedestrians are impounded. If drivers destroy road facilities while driving or parking, they should restore them to the original state or pay the damage. If drivers cause an accident or run away after an accident, their cars are seized. In North Korea, the seizure or confiscation of vehicles is a big problem for factories and enterprises, so it is considered a heavy penalty. 

Another interesting part of North Korea’s road-related law is that all drivers entering cities are required to wash their cars clean. The law bans cars coated with dust or stained with mud from entering cities. Apparently, the law is designed to prevent dirty cars from spoiling the beauty of the cities. 

North Korea does not conform to international standards in road signs, so it might be dangerous for foreigners to drive in the country. 

In accordance with the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic that was concluded in 1949, South Korea follows global standards in road signs. North Korea, on the other hand, is not a signatory to the international treaty, and it designs its own road signs. They are simple and clear, but many of them are quite unique. For example, a Korean word meaning “stop” is written on the stop sign, while a large exclamation mark is drawn on another sign, indicating that drivers should be careful. Some signs feature the drawings of a cow or a cart. Signs like these are not found elsewhere. North Korea has created road signs on their own, and it is hard for foreigners to recognize them. If South Korean vehicles run on North Korean roads, the drivers might become a bit confused. 

Speaking of public transport in Pyongyang, there are trolleybuses, subways and city buses. The electric trolleybuses look like ordinary buses but they are powered by electricity drawn from overhead wires by trolley poles. They connect major subway stations, including Pyongyang station, with commercial and residential areas. Double-decker buses began to appear in the 2000s as a useful transportation means during busy commuting hours. 

The number of taxis has increased sharply in recent years. There were less than 100 taxis in Pyongyang in the early 2000s, but it is estimated that the number shot up to 6,000 as of 2019. 

Taxis are the most expensive means of transportation in North Korea. They are not used as public transport but for individual purposes. These days, even public institutions operate taxis as a lucrative business because many users of taxis pay in US dollars, not in the local currency. 

Taxi fares are ten to 15 times more expensive than those of buses and subways, but a growing number of people are using taxis because many are looking for a more pleasant and swifter means of transport as well as quality services. In border areas, foreign businesspeople use charter taxis when traveling between North Korea’s Rajin and Hunchun in China. 

North Korea has made efforts to improve and expand the public transport network, which has unfortunately failed to meet the public needs. Against the backdrop, new delivery vehicles called “servi-cha” have emerged. The term is a combination of the English word of “service” and the Korean word of “cha”, which means “car.” Individuals register these service cars with state agencies and use them for private gain to transport goods or passengers. Servi-cha costs more than mass transportation, but it has become an important logistics vehicle in North Korea. 

The military, enterprises, administrative agencies and the Workers’ Party are the four public sectors that own vehicles in North Korea. Merchants borrow the vehicles for their transport business and pay fees in return. That is, pubic vehicles are used as a means of private transportation, and this is how servi-cha works. As the service car business proved useful and profitable, traders purchase used cars in China, register them with one of the four public sectors and use them to run their private transport business. Trucks were used mostly at first, but van-type minibuses, city buses and intercity buses have also been used as servi-cha, which has become an essential part of the local transport market. 

In North Korea, workplaces used to be closely located to homes under the principle of “job-housing accessibility.” As a result, traffic demand was not too high. That’ why North Korea’s transportation policy has focused on railways, while roads have only played a supporting role. 

However, the emergence of the private market or jangmadang created demand for a new transportation means, influencing the country’s road traffic considerably. 

When North Korea’s rationing system worked smoothly in the past, the state supplied people with homes and jobs. They would travel only short distances—between home and workplace or between home and school. After the collapse of the state rationing system, however, many local residents earned their livelihood through market activities, which made them move around more frequently than before. As the jangmadang is proliferating, cars will become a major transportation means. But vehicles and fuel are strictly limited in the North. To secure things needed to expand road transport, North Korea will inevitably interact with the outside world. So, the expansion of road traffic has much to do with the reclusive country’s reform and openness. I think it is absolutely necessary for South and North Korea to cooperate in this area.

Now, many North Korean people feel the need to travel or transport goods more quickly to anywhere they want. A lot more changes are anticipated in North Korea’s traffic network, in which elements of a market economy has been introduced. 

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