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Inside North Korea

Public Transportation in N. Korea



In North Korea, where the freedom of movement is heavily restricted, residents find it difficult to use vehicles. It is easy to understand that bicycles, at one time, were what they valued the most out of all their possessions. 

But a significant change is being perceived these days, particularly in public transportation. Now, it is common to see taxis and buses crowded with passengers on the roads in the capital city of Pyongyang. Last week, we talked about North Korea’s logistics revolution triggered by the wide use of new delivery vehicles called servi-cha, meaning “service car.” Continuing our focus from last week, we’ll bring to light a major change in mass transportation in the North with Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector who works as a reporter at the Seoul-based online newspaper, Daily NK. 

Public transportation in North Korea can be divided into two phases—before 2010 and after 2010. Before 2010, logistics and distribution networks were inadequate, and mass transportation could not cope with traffic. 

From 2010, however, more and more vehicles, including taxis and servi-cha, appeared on the roads in North Korea. There were very few people who couldn’t move around because there were no vehicles available. The situation might not be very good in remote rural areas, but in urban cities, most residents can use different means of transportation. 

Growing traffic demand is another indication of the rapid development of markets in North Korea. After the severe economic difficulties of the 1990s, North Korea’s public transport services, including railways, failed to function properly. As a result, local people developed various means of transportation themselves, starting with illegal logistics vehicles, namely servi-cha. Afterwards, the number of buses and taxis continued to rise. 

Mass transportation has developed fast since current leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2012. Many individuals have accumulated wealth in line with the expansion of private markets or jangmadang, and some of them purchase buses and taxis from China and other countries with their own money to get into the profitable transportation business. 

Of course, private vehicle ownership is not permitted in the communist North. Operators of buses and taxis pay state organizations or companies for using their names. Taxis, in particular, have become pretty popular, with a growing number of people using them. 

Taxi drivers register with taxi companies and pay them a certain amount of money on a monthly basis. As long as they make the set payments to the companies, they can keep the rest for themselves, no matter how much they earn. It’s no wonder that taxi drivers work really hard. 

Taxi fares are determined based on the distance traveled. So if three people heading for the same destination use one taxi and split the fare, they can save money, compared to when using servi-cha separately. Also, users of servi-cha have to go to a regional parking lot where servi-cha is stationed, but taxis travel through alleys and backstreets, offering more convenience. Taxis go to rural areas as well

In the past, taxis were beyond the means of most North Korean people. In the socialist North, it was hard to imagine that an individual would use a vehicle and a driver as well as fuel for his or her private purposes. But the number of taxis shot up after Kim Jong-un came to power. At present, it is assumed that as many as 6,000 taxis are in operation in Pyongyang. 

Taxis awaiting passengers are always found in front of a famous cold noodle restaurant called Okryugwan in Pyongyang. Formerly, cabs were only seen in the capital, but the taxi business is now thriving in northern regions bordering China. These days, customers can summon taxis with a phone call, and those multi-colored call-taxis are known among locals as “allagi,” meaning “multi-colored.” 

When using a taxicab, customers pay a base price of 2 US dollars, which is quite expensive for North Koreans as they can buy 4 kilograms of rice with the same amount of money. Still, there is consistent demand for taxis in the jangmadang, as residents who have become better-off are increasingly seeking a more convenient and faster means of transportation. But it is subways that serve as the main public transport option in Pyongyang. 

Like in Seoul, subways are a common means of mass transportation in Pyongyang. Many commuters in the North Korean capital use subways, buses or trams. The Pyongyang Metro has two lines—Chollima(천리마), which runs from north to south, and Hyoksin(혁신) running from west to east. The two lines cannot cover the entire capital area, though. As citizens can’t reach every corner of the city using the metro, they transfer from the metro to buses or trams. 

The Pyongyang Metro opened in 1973, one year earlier than Seoul’s first subway line. Subway passengers in Pyongyang scan their transportation card and pass through the turnstile to reach the subway platform. The system is similar to South Korea’s. In addition to the two metro lines that Ms. Kang explained, North Korea opened another line, Mangyeongdae, in 1987, but it is actually an extension of the existing Chollima line. The total length of the Pyongyang Metro is a mere 34 kilometers. 

Due to the limit in the metro’s service area, Pyongyang citizens often use trams and buses as well. Electric trams, which run on rails, connect Pyongyang Station with major subway stations and commercial and residential areas. But the four lines in the tram system are hardly adequate to meet the traffic demand of more than 3 million citizens. Moreover, tram operations are often disrupted due to the worsening electrical power situation in the nation. As an alternative, buses have increasingly assumed the role of trams. In the process, a special type of bus called “beori bus” or “money-making bus” has emerged. 

In principle, buses in North Korea should be operated based on fares set by the government.  But those beori buses pay some fees to state agencies and companies and make money by carrying people or freight. 

The government provides fuel to the buses, but the amount is not enough. So bus operators illegally purchase gasoline at private markets, where they can find gas smuggled across the border. Smugglers bring in anything to North Korea as long as there is demand. 

The privately-operated beori buses usually carry 20 passengers and cost nearly ten times more than public options. That’s because bus operators buy gasoline at the jangmadang, in addition to the inadequate fuel supplied by the state. But many residents choose to use the expensive buses because if they are late for work, they can’t receive their daily food ration. 

In fact, North Korea planned spaces and organized society in a way to keep homes as close as possible to workplaces, resulting in little demand for transportation. In the past, buses were only operated within a radius of 30 kilometers. Later, in the 1980s, buses were occasionally run on short intercity routes at a distance of 200 to 300 kilometers. But in line with the emergence of a new class of wealthy individuals known as donju, long-distance intercity bus lines are now in operation to connect major cities all around the country. 

Without a doubt, this dramatic change is attributable to flourishing private markets. The expansion of the jangmadang is accelerating the introduction of elements of a market economy to the communist state and improving the quality of life for the North Korean people.

Since 2010, the domestic economy has been stabilized in a way, with some products produced locally. Of course, the North Korean economy faces many difficulties in a broader context. But compared to the 2000s at least, the living standards of North Korean people have been raised to a higher level in the 2010s. There have been positive changes in North Korea’s domestic economy and people’s lives in recent years. 

Although the expansion of public transportation does not represent a change in North Korean society overall, it is a clear sign it is moving towards a market economy. It remains to be seen whether these little ripples inside North Korea will lead to a huge wave of change. 

(Next week, we’ll talk about North Korea’s science and technology.)

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