By on December 25, 2011

The familiar wail of a police siren cuts through the chilly early winter morning air rudely snapping me out of a cold-induced slumber. Our minibus slows to a crawl as our minder winds down the window to wave his papers at a bunch of stern-faced traffic policemen.

The officer that checked the papers gave the 17 university students on the bus a once-over before waving to his partner to turn off the siren. It seems that a Toyota Coaster minibus filled with students is a rare sight in this part of the world.

Then I caught sight of a little round badge bearing the smiling face of the “Eternal President” Kim Il-Sung on the officer’s coat.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” the voice in my head whispered.

Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or better known as Communist North Korea.

In the capital city of Pyongyang, the roads are wide but not as empty as you might think. An eclectic mix of cars ply the six-lane dual carriageways, sharing space with run-down electric trolley buses and trams.

The most common car seen on the streets is the Romanian-built Dacia 1310. Most of them are part of the city’s taxi network though our minders were quick to add that these taxis are expensive to take and most citizens only take them as a last resort.

How expensive is an average cab ride?

According to one of our minders, Mr. Kim Mun-Chol, the fare upon flag-down is 3 USD and a 15-minute ride would set you back nearly 20 USD. The international exchange rate stands at 1 USD : 133.75 North Korean Won (KPW) but the local exchange rate is closer to 1: 100, presumably for easier rip-offcalculation. Foreigners are explicitly forbidden to use or even hold onto the local currency and are only allowed to deal in USD or Euros.

Most other Dacia 1310s seem to be private vehicles barely kept in running condition with homemade parts and the owners’ tenacious will to get by. I saw a local attempt to change a wheel on his Romanian love just outside the restaurant that we were about the have lunch at.

The pins holding the brakes together were roughly cut bolts that looked seemingly as if they were scavenged pieces of metal put together. The amount of welding done within the wheel well also hinted at the numerous repairs that have been performed to keep this car going in a country where getting spare parts is difficult to say the least.

Just as I was about to take a photograph of the man working, another of our minders appeared in front of my camera and said with an almost too cheery a grin: “This way please, we are having lunch here.”

He refused to budge till I entered the restaurant.

With housing issued by the state, where you stay is a poignant reminder of your social status. For the roughly three million citizens living in the city, they consider themselves amongst the fortunate ones in the country with barely acceptable access to electricity, food, and running water.

Whilst some struggle to keep their cars going, others indulge in conspicuous consumption with Mercedes Benz topping the unofficial chart of most popular marque in the city.

Mercedes of various models and age serve as the premium mode of transport for the rich and powerful. Parked right outside the Koryo Hotel, a North Korean rated five-star hotel where we stayed, is a fleet of presumably armoured S-Classes wearing the Red Star marked diplomatic plates.

And it is not just the stereotypical “dictator special” S-Class that is the mark of a made man here. More modern products like the GL-Class and the latest E-Class models are occasionally seen barreling down the road at speeds well above the legal limits with relative immunity from the local law enforcement.

For those just a few rungs beneath the top of the social ladder, Volkswagens, in particular, the Passat and Jetta are choice picks. Further down, citizens seem to shower their favour equally between locally made Pyeonghwa Motors products and Chinese-made Brillance, BYD, and FAW products.

The roads in Pyongyang are never packed enough to cause any real traffic jams and drivers mostly subscribe to the driving style of the right-of-horn. But that is not to say that they disregard lights at junctions. At the few working traffic lights in the city, drivers, regardless of how expensive the car they are driving, placidly wait out the change of lights.

At junctions without traffic lights, and there are quite a few in a city with hardly enough electricity to go around, there are female traffic police officers conducting traffic. One of our minders joked that these ladies are picked for their attractiveness and dedication to the job. Judging from the officers’ rosily made up faces, it seems that there is a seed of truth in his jest.

And as I wonder how these ladies keep traffic flowing all day while bearing the brunt of the sub-zero winter cold, our driver pulls into a petrol station to top up the tank. North Korea imports most of its oil from neighbouring China at “friendly prices,” said one of our minders and declined to elaborate on further enquiry. His carefully worded reply did little to prepare me for the biggest surprise of the trip.

Total fuel bill: 50 Won

The price of diesel is one Won per litre.

And I doubt the price of petrol is any more expensive.

 

The author was part of a team of 16 journalism students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University chosen to tour the country from Dec 3 to 10 on a reporting practicum offered by the school.

The trip is fully funded by the Wee Kim Wee legacy fund.

All images courtesy: Wong Kang Wei & Edwin Loh

 

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84 Comments on “North Korea Diary: All Roads Lead To Pyongyang...”


  • avatar
    vww12

    Despite the monstrous misery imposed by the Communist Korean regime, it is still useful to have it around so young people can see how life was under the Socialist regimes of the 20th century, from the National Socialists to the Bolsheviks:

    1. The people did not have sufficient electricity nor food nor any access to imports
    2. The Socialist leaders had the best money can buy from around the world, including medical care overseas, the best in Western technology for personal use, etc.
    3. For the leaders, respect for the laws was entirely optional —for the people, mere infractions often became deadly
    4. The leaders staged Potemkin villages, or in this case, while the people in the countryside starved
    5. The leaders fed well about 20% of the population so these people could be useful in enslaving the rest

    Remember kids: the driver of the Dacia 1310 is a privileged North Korean, when compared to most other people in that 24-million people Socialist gulag.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s easy to laugh at North Korea’s absurdities, but it’s important to remind us, as you have done, that we cannot even begin to comprehend the misery of life in that country.

      Not even the top of society really gets the best, though – those S-Classes are at least 20 years old. In fact, I owned a 420SEL about a decade ago – it was a great car for a decade ago but woefully obsolete today.

      Did you get to see the Ryugyong hotel? Tallest hotel in the world until someone in Dubai changed his plans and made his a few feet taller. Of course it never had anything as inconvenient as hotel guests – rumor was that the elevator shafts were assembled incorrectly and so it would be impossible to get guests to the high floors.

      I hear it’s “finished” – has anyone been allowed to enter?

      D

      • 0 avatar
        Edwin Loh

        The Ryugong Hotel is a majestic sight to behold in the morning fog/smog. I didn’t get a chance to visit it but I heard it still isn’t completed yet.

      • 0 avatar
        amca

        The majestic Ryugyong Hotel has a fatal flaw – its elevator shafts are not straight enough to allow an elevator to function. I read it’s not a problem that can be fixed. Ooops.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      I disagree with your post. It is much worse to live under our system where we use our Apple iPhone on the ATT 3G wireless network to organize a protest (and order pizza) against giant corporations. So much worse.

    • 0 avatar
      MattPete

    • 0 avatar
      jet_silver

      There are so many entities to which North Korea is useful. For China, it keeps starving North Koreans from flooding in, and keeps the vibrant South Korean society from leaking across the border. For South Korea, it keeps the Chinese at bay. For a number of shall we say emerging countries it is a source of some kinds of technology. For Japan it is an anchor for the Koreans who might well be even more competitive with less need for a standing army.

      The problem with all these uses is they fall on the backs of starving, ignorant people who – being actual human beings and all – deserve better. A case study of the profound cynicism of a ruling class is ‘useful’ once you dismiss the awfulness of the people’s lives; but it is kind of disgusting that these utilitarian arguments resolve, one by one, into people who are screwed into very tight, very small corners, and whose ambition is to survive until they perhaps get their next meal.

      Note: vww, I am not quibbling with your post. The “usefulness” of NK is all over news reporting these days, and it is too easy to omit thought about what’s between the plinth and the column.

      • 0 avatar
        Conslaw

        “keeps starving North Koreans from flooding in”

        — The population of North Korea is about 24 million. That’s less than 2% of the population of China. I don’t think they are worried about a flood of North Koreans in China. I really don’t know why China still props up North Korea except that it’s tradition by now.

      • 0 avatar
        John R

        @Conslaw

        Still doesn’t mean China wants to deal with 24 million refugees let alone any.

      • 0 avatar
        Sketch

        For not leaking across the border, South Korean pop music seems to be quite popular in stores in Shenzhen…

    • 0 avatar
      1600 MKII

      Sorry vww12:
      North Korea is a totalitarian Stalinist Communist State…yes, Hitler used the word socialist but it wasn’t even an oligarchy – it was flat out surpressionist totalitarianism.
      Socialism is best exemplified in Denmark and Sweden.
      Communism and Socialism are two totally different forms of government and of social experiment.

      • 0 avatar
        chuckrs

        ‘North Korea is a totalitarian Stalinist Communist State…yes, Hitler used the word socialist but it wasn’t even an oligarchy – it was flat out surpressionist totalitarianism.’
        To those of us not interested in political ‘science’ arguments – and even more so for the unfortunates ensnared in such regimes – this is probably a distinction without a difference.
        Certainly much of Europe shows it’s possible to have benign socialism – for a while. But, as Thatcher observed, eventually you run out of other people’s money to spend. The PIIGS have. Mark Steyn recently added a corollary – until you run out of people – period, noting the persistent sub-replacement level European birth rates of the last couple of decades. That old bomb thrower Pat Buchanan wrote a book on this a decade ago, but nobody paid much attention then.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      it is still useful to have it around so young people can see how life was under the Socialist regimes of the 20th century, from the National Socialists to the Bolsheviks

      “Socialism” is much abused around here. Maybe we could have a New Year’s resolution to end this once and for all.

      Socialism is defined by state ownership of production and the abolition of private property. Socialist states are not necessarily undemocratic, although they can be.

      That does not describe the Nazis. The Nazis were supported by the industrialists and were opposed by the communists. Germany under “National Socialism” was not socialist, any more than East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was either a democracy or a republic.

      Nor are the Scandinavian countries socialist. They are social democracies, which contain some aspects of socialism but they ultimately operate with free enterprise and private property.

      North Korea is socialist in the Marxist-Leninist sense, i.e. socialism that is allegedly evolving toward communism. Cuba is also socialist. The Soviet Union and the former Eastern bloc were socialist, but they’ve pretty much punted on that, as we all know.

    • 0 avatar
      Diesel Fuel Only

      N. Korea also resembles a Theocracy.

      Kim Jong Il is virtually deified (though dead since 1994, he is still “President”, the successors are only head of the Communist Party) and the enforced ideological conformity and punishment of heretics doesn’t seem that much different than the inquisition, where you could be tortured or burned at the stake for believing, reading or proclaiming the wrong things (such as that the world is round).

      Those who did the burning are now called saints, such as Thomas More, who is now the catholic patron saint of politicians!

      The torture technique of waterboarding, for instance, dates from the inquisition.

      Medieval Christianity was also a system in which the oppressors lived in fantastic luxury and built gigantic monuments to itself while the majority of the population lived in ignorance and toiled in near slavery conditions. It was only after the 1750s when the heretical & blasphemous Scottish Enlightenment put the final nails in the coffin of the dark ages that Europe’s average standard of living recovered to the level enjoyed under pagan ancient Rome!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Enlightenment

      “Among the fields that rapidly advanced were philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry and sociology. Among the Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton.”

      • 0 avatar
        windswords

        You cannot discount the effect of the Reformation in bringing the age of enlightenment to western Europe. Luther, Calvin and their contemporaries kick started the process many years before the Scottish Enlightenment. It was their followers who became some of the first settlers in America and brought with them the seeds of representative government and the notion that God created all men to be equal with rights that could not bestowed or taken away by their rulers.

        Kim Il-sung (“great leader”)is the one who is deified in NK (they are all to a certain extant but he is tops). All their rulers including the new guy operate under the cult of personality that Stalin used. Kim Il-sung learned under Stalin.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        You make a very interesting point, NK is closer to theocracy at this point than a Stalinist state.

        Oh and I’ll take the twenty year old 420SEL over whatever Daimler is putting out these days. Styling and reliability cannot be matched by the new breed of Mercedes, or simply ‘Benz’ as they are known in this part of the world.

    • 0 avatar
      AJ

      I have a friend who recently visited South Korea and met with their leaders, including to visit the DMZ. He had a story to tell how bodies are picked up out of a river from North Korea and how the people are under five feet tall and less then 100 pounds.

  • avatar
    Toad

    If you have nothing else to be thankful for this Christmas at least be thankful you don’t live in North Korea.

    If you wonder why: http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/north-korean-defectors-kim-jong-ii/

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Another good resource is the Vice Guide to North Korea. It’s a few years old now but still relevant about a very surreal country.

    Whether this can can hold together with the twerp that’s in power or it will crash under a military junta is open for debate.

  • avatar
    Neb

    Interesting article! I attended a talk from another North Korean visitor a few years ago; at the time he said the streets were only occupied by the breaking down electric trolleys. It’s cool to read about N.Korean car culture, such as it is. So was there any variation between “decrepit Romanian cars” and “Party elite cars?” I’m wondering if there is any sort of middle class in North Korea.

    (Also since it’s Christmas let us dispense with all the “hurrr this is what your politics leads to hurrr” comments, Okay?)

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      The tracked trolley buses and wheeled trams are mostly old but I didn’t see any broken down. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do that on a regular basis but the more pressing public transport problem there is there is just not enough buses and trams to get people around.

      • 0 avatar
        Neb

        Sad. The story I was told was that some trams had people hanging on the back, and it was their job to re-connect the power with a broom when the entirely worn out power bracket inevitably collapsed or fell off the power line.

        Are bikes popular, or are they beyond the means of most people?

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Sounds like Seattle.

        Bad-a-bomp

        * It’s a joke, please don’t lecture me on what a Hell hole North Korea is, I get it

      • 0 avatar
        Edwin Loh

        @Neb I didn’t see anyone re-connect power brackets on the top of the buses of trams. People were generally already spilling out of the vehicle because of the severe lack of vehicles to get people around. Rush hour starts well before 6am and the roads are awash with people trying to get to work. Most walk, some ride bicycles (which were banned until very recently), even fewer drive. A regular bus stop could have well over 150 people waiting for the bus/tram at any one time. And the rush hour doesn’t really end till roughly mid-day; evening traffic starts at 430pm and lasts till the last tram/bus at roughly 10 or 11pm. Throughout the day, you’d still see streams of people walking on the streets. They seem to be always going somewhere. Then again, these are the same people who measure distances by the time it takes to walk it. A few of my minders, whom I’ve come to assume are not very high ranking, would take about 100 minutes to walk from their homes to our hotel if they didn’t stay within the hotel during our stay. The temperature when I was there was a chilly -8 deg Celsius daily average and to the north koreans, this is just the beginning of winter. Average winter temperature is -25 with lows of -30 and we’re not even talking about the ridiculous 40 km/h winds.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        “…some ride bicycles (which were banned until very recently)…”

        Talk about a new definition of the ruling class restricting the lower class’ “upward mobility”…

      • 0 avatar
        Diesel Fuel Only

        I understand that the subway cars are ex-East Berlin or ex-Prague under the iron curtain vintage. When the Eastern-Bloc fell, the Germans of course spent piles of money upgrading the East German cities, the EU has likewise transferred piles of EU money to integrate the Eastern-Bloc countries into the economic infrastructure of the west. I remember reading that the N. Koreans somehow got the old DDR trolleys and subway cars and installed them in the Pyongyang subway.

        The Germans spent something like one trillion dollars modernizing East German public services and industry over a fifteen year period – imagine what it would cost were South Korea, Japan, China, etc. to have to do the same with N. Korea today.

      • 0 avatar
        Diesel Fuel Only

        “…some ride bicycles (which were banned until very recently)…”

        Under the USSR typewriters and copy machines were closely guarded least they fall into the hands of those who might spread unwelcome ideas.

  • avatar

    Mr. Loh,

    Outstanding writing. Talking ostensibly about things automotive, and without ever using words like “totalitarian”, you present a chilling view of a police state.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    I understand a special lane exists only for Kim Il Jong’s motorcade to drive on, or was that eliminated?
    Gas prices follow the Venezuelan model: gas there is 12 cents a gallon but you can’t afford to buy decent food (nor find any)

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      There is no special lane. Though if the Kims would want to drive down the road, I’m quite sure their military force would make as if the entire road was a special lane – probably complete with kowtowing peasants lining the road. Prices there don’t seem to have any meaning at all.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Reuters is reporting that the Pyongyang Traffic Girls are now on high alert during the period of regime transition. Floating traffic platforms have descended upon most major Pyongyang intersections in an effort to avoid widespread automotive panic.

    According to Traffic Major Sung Park of the Airborne Traffic Division, PTG “white socks” traffic warriors are prepared for the worst, including a few stalled cars at major intersections resulting from the usual wintertime gasoline rationing shortages.

    Sung Park advises motorists who find themselves stopped at a traffic point not to panic, but have a cigarette and wait patiently for the car ahead of them to move out. Order must and will be maintained, she stated.

  • avatar
    orick

    @neb, decrepit Romanian cars is the middle class there I imagine. The lower class would have bikes or walk. This is probably similar to china 30 years ago.

    Speaking of china, I just think China should take over North Korea and bring the Chinese brand of communism over there. Not that I am for war or anything but why spend tons of money proping up a failed state when you can take it over and run it better. Your army is called people’s liberation army. There is a country of people needs liberating. Yes I am naive.

    • 0 avatar
      GS650G

      China does not want anything resembling a market driven economy on the border with South Korea. Think of NK as a very large border wall with South Korea. On a more practical note NK has so many problems at this point it’s a lost cause.

      15 years ago estimates ranged from 100 million to over a trillion dollars if the wall came down peacefully to “take over” NK and bring those people into the 20th century. I’m sure it would take 10 times that now. It’s a failed state that not event SK wants to have anything to do with, they are content to wall it off as well.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        I agree its the elephant in the room neither side wants to acknowledge. I’ve been reading for years there was a movement to unite the two (from the South) partially to reunite families separated by the war. In another generation this will no longer even be relevant.

      • 0 avatar
        cfclark

        My thinking has been that if North Korea really wants to destroy the South, they won’t attack them militarily, they’ll just open the border. The reunification costs would bankrupt the ROK if it happened suddenly.

  • avatar
    geggamoya

    So photographing was restricted but im surprised you were even allowed to have your own camera. My father went there last year as a member of a team and they had to leave teir phones, laptops and cameras in Singapore before being flown to NK on a military plane.

    They were accompanied by a guide and photograper at all times, and after the trip they got a collection of photos. The “hosts” also filmed the entire visit, and made a video of them visitng famous places with a background of pompous music and a woman talking about how awesome everything is. Absolutely everything during the whole visit was very carefully orchestrated to convey a certain image of the country.

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      Cameras are allowed in – even DSLRs. Though the larger the lens you carry, the more nervous the people around you become. Furthermore, it’s harder to shoot inconspicuously with a large DSLR and so you do get asked to delete photos if they think you’ve captured something unflattering. Best choice: A good compact camera.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    What a curiously strange place that I had the good fortune of not being born in.

    Many thanks for bringing this fresh and unique perspective into the DPRK.

    Merry Christmas indeed.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Image or electricity,
    electricity or image?

    Personal freedom or food,
    food or personal freedom?

    Broken-down busses or beat-up Benzes,
    beat-up Benzes or broken-down busses?

    Oh all the difficult choices that a dictator has to make,
    it’s really tough and lonely at the top!

    And please don’t disparage, or call into question,
    either the dedication or the competence of the Eternal or the Dear leaders,
    because nobody could have done a better job for their people.

    We know this of course, because they said so themselves.

    And don’t believe the Chinese propaganda line, which goes:
    we support the N. Korean government in-order to avoid a collapse
    and a related wave of refugees streaming into China.

    China, the real grey-emenence in N. Korea,
    continues to support that dysfunctional existance-wasting regime
    because it serves the useful purpose of providing a distraction to the democratic capitalist nations,
    and cover until China can fully assert itself.

    If China cared more about the folks there,
    than their own image and geo-strategic objectives,
    they would have allowed a soft-landing
    whereby N. Korea would have been stabilized as
    S. Korea would have taken-over and reunited the country.

    And in so doing, no flood of refugees would have occurred.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      China, the real grey-emenence in N. Korea,
      continues to support that dysfunctional existence-wasting regime
      because it serves the useful purpose of providing a distraction to the democratic capitalist nations,
      and cover until China can fully assert itself.

      Interesting point. Basically you’re saying North Korea is to China what Cuba was to the fallen Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it cut off all aid to Cuba; under the public banner of, “we’re freakin’ broke,” which was true. However, given the fall of the iron curtain, the failure of Soviet Communism, and their military defeat in Afghanistan, Cuba had zero value to the government.

      If US and Euro policy does not change, drastically, and in the next 3 to 5 years, I suspect it will be the US and Europe moving toward “second world status” so to speak as we make cheap plastic junk for the rabid consumer society that exists in China and India. It may already be too late.

    • 0 avatar
      tekdemon

      “If China cared more about the folks there,
      than their own image and geo-strategic objectives,
      they would have allowed a soft-landing
      whereby N. Korea would have been stabilized as
      S. Korea would have taken-over and reunited the country.”
      I feel like you’re forgetting the fact that North Korea is still a country with a massive army of brainwashed people who follow a leader that did manage to make nukes with short and medium ranged missiles. Much as China would love to spread the Chinese style of capitalist soft communism I don’t think China is willing to get into a nuclear war with North Korea, let alone a nuclear war with people who are brainwashed into resisting your attempts to help them.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Haven’t forgot or overlooked any of that.

        The N. Korean people are hardly stupid, and regularly prove their grit and industriousness by surviving in the face of such lousy political management.

        But the state would not long survive if the five (or is it 4?) powers would not let themselves get conned via nuke blackmail. All this talk of good behavior for light-water reactors and heating oil from D.C. or gas & diesel for free from China, or eco-tourism and JV manufacturing parks w/ S. Korea wouldn’t happen in the same way if there wasn’t a sizable amount of fissile material, competent delivery systems, proliferation activities in the mix.

        Nuke war with China? I never really thought it likely that Chez-Kim is threatening the hand that both supports and feeds it, but that things might be that screwed-up there could be within the realm of possibility. That said, however, the probability of that still seems exceedingly slim.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      China, the real grey-emenence in N. Korea,
      continues to support that dysfunctional existance-wasting regime
      because it serves the useful purpose of providing a distraction to the democratic capitalist nations,
      and cover until China can fully assert itself.

      China sees North Korea as a buffer zone between itself and the US and its interests in South Korea. Just as long as there is a strong US presence in South Korea, I think that you’ll find the Chinese endeavoring to keep North Korea firmly within its sphere of influence.

      They may also see there being some historical obligation, as the North Koreans aided the Chinese communists in their civil war against the Nationalists. But whether that really matters to today’s leadership, I don’t know.

      • 0 avatar
        xHondaExec

        South Korea – despite what you hear in the press – has Zero interest in reunification.

        First, they are not prepared and probably cannot afford to invest the trillions dollars that it would cost to do what the West Germans did for East Germany after the Wall came down.

        Second, the South Koreans are not in a position to deal with what would be a immense tidal wave of hungry, impoverished and desperate North Korean immigrants crossing into the South. In East Germany, people may have been deprived but they weren’t starving in the streets.

        Unlike East Germany, which was run by a ruling class made up of Communist party members many of whom were highly experienced and capable professional civil servants and career government bureaucrats, North Korea is a Wizard of Oz state where the Kim family act as a front for a military dictatorship which consumes the lion’s share of national GDP and which runs the country with the acquiescence of China which sees North Korea as a buffer zone with the South and as a tool to be used in “managing” its relationships with South Korea and the United States.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Kim Jong Ill will be permanently vacationing in an uncomfortably warm clime right now. His personal living expenses were a reported 1/5 of the Gross Domestic Product of his whole country, While his subjects starved, he consumed $500,000 in Cognac per year. His favorite foods included lobster and caviar. While most people in his country can’t afford rice, let alone a bicycle, he gave away 160 Mercedes Benz cars last year to communist party leaders, valued at $20 million. The “occupy” protesters should try protesting in the streets of Pyongyang, where their protestations would have true meaning. Of course, the cell phone service would not be as good there.

    • 0 avatar
      dejal1

      NK does have cell phone service. It’s provided by Orascam, an Egyptian company. There is coverage where 94% of the population lives. 500,000 subscribers in the country.

      From Wikipedia (and I have read similar figures before), 60% of the 20 to 50 age group in the capital has cell phones. Probably most of the 500,000 is this same group.

      Of course, you can only make domestic calls and there is no internet. You also have to believe that someone is listening when you make a call.

  • avatar
    dejal1

    Because I’m a anti-Saab crank, I noticed the Volvo.

    If you’ve lost the North Korean market, then you are done. Even NK didn’t want Saabs.

    I guess those rumors of Kim Jong-il wanting to buy Saab will just remain rumors then. I was hoping for a Juche edition.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Just as the allies had to de-Nazify Germany after the war. So too will the North have to be de-Kimed.
    What’s needed is a Gorbachev with some open talk on Juche. Not some drunken Brezhnev accident. Which is my guess what young chubby cheeks gonna be.

    Gees I thought our taxis were dicey but freakin 40-year-old Renault 12’s….what an insult.

    Anyway’s me thinks NK is China’s card they play every once in a while, to re-assert the region. Pyongyang has some independence though playing the superpowers off for aid.

    • 0 avatar
      Neb

      Good point, though Gorbachev was a reformer who ultimately wanted to save the system. When the system has essentially ground to a halt…it’s difficult to make the argument that the system is worth saving.

  • avatar
    Invalidattitude

    If the masses are not revolting for freedom, probably they don’t deserve it. What to lose? A miserable life?

    BTW I wonder how they get those Dacias, I doubt its cheaper to ship them from Europe than import some Chinese (or even SK!) used clunker.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      You have obviously not read about North Korean camps for political prisoners, or their policy of imprisoning three generations of the malefactors family; you screw up and you, your parents, your siblings, and you children go to the camps. The treatment in the camps is every bit as sadistic as the Nazis, maybe more so.

      Not to mention that everybody informs on everybody because they are afraid not to.

      Seriously, do some reading on how they treat their political prisoners. Unless you are a sociopath it will give you nightmares.

      It’s easy to be brave on the internet; in North Korea, not so much.

    • 0 avatar
      dfp21

      I think they don’t know their lives are miserable, as they have nothing to compare their condition to.
      I say this because my Chinese girlfriend told me that Chinese women don’t know that forced abortion is unusual/unique. 99% think it’s normal.

  • avatar
    WheelMcCoy

    @Invalidattitude –
    >>
    If the masses are not revolting for freedom, probably they don’t deserve it. What to lose? A miserable life?
    <<

    Maybe the miserable lives of their loved ones? Not so easy when your family is threatened.

    A revolution needs time to build and information to fuel it. Information has been tightly controlled in N. Korea.

  • avatar
    tallnikita

    ohmygod they have old cars! omg we are so better then them because we don’t drive those old cars anymore! omg this is such as awesome portrait of people with crappy cars! they have crappy cars therefore they are oppressed!

    this is some twisted focus on materialism. get a clue people the world is not all about modern cars and conveniences.

    • 0 avatar

      Where in Mr. Loh’s post does it say or imply he thinks “we” are “better”? He simply described the state of automobile use in North Korea as it appeared to him.

      If anyone has a twisted focus on materialism, it’s not Mr. Loh.

      I’m an enthusiastic car hobbyist, a capitalist and someone who could never be an ascetic and when I read Edwin’s account my first reaction was not, “Oh my, they really are stuck with some terrible cars and few material possessions. That must make my society better than theirs”. Instead, my reaction was, “How terrible it must be to live in a totalitarian, police state.”

      It takes a certain cultivated moral blindness to come away from a discussion of North Korea by focusing on the West’s supposed materialism.

      • 0 avatar
        Edwin Loh

        Thanks Ronnie, for setting it straight. I never meant to judge their way of life by what they have or do not have. Simply describing what I saw help me tell their story of their lives. The minders go to great lengths to control everything that we see and hear but they can’t control everything. The people I saw on the roads and the things they did tell a story of their own. I don’t need to weigh in on it at all.

        The man that I saw changing the wheel did so with such dexterity and fluidity in his actions that I presume it is not his first time doing it. He did so quietly, without complaint or cursing. To him, it seemed like just another daily chore to be done. I saw this stiff upper lip sort of attitude to life in many of the citizens in my week-long stay.

        Blackout? Whip out the candles and life goes on as usual.

        Can’t get on the last bus or tram? Walk for hours in twilight darkness with shoulders squared just to get home.

        If I would make a stand and risk sounding biased or judgmental, I’d say that this is definitely a tough neighborhood to live and grow up in.

      • 0 avatar
        tallnikita

        I was referring more to the subsequent commentary.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I never meant to judge their way of life by what they have or do not have.

        I don’t see why not. North Korea is a draconian Orwellian dictatorship that brutalizes political dissidents, keeps the majority of the population stuck in poverty and oppression, and reserves its material benefits for a few select cronies. It’s a model nation for showing what backwardness and paranoia will do to a country if we let it.

        Much of the world’s population lives better than that, as it should. I’m certainly not going to apologize for that.

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      @tallnikita

      I humbly apologise for the misunderstanding.

  • avatar
    Kitt

    Great report, Edwin. I’m surprised they agreed to allow journalism students to visit. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I’m totally jealous.

    Are you writing about your visit anywhere else? I’d love to hear more details.

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      Thanks Kitt and Ronnie for your kind and supportive words but I don’t think I’d be writing about my visit anywhere else. It’s been a pleasure to share a story with the Best and Brightest.

  • avatar

    This is great! Love how it’s about the cars.

    The fuel price thing is crazy!

    • 0 avatar
      Volt 230

      In Cuba, ti’s worse as far as cars available. Mostly American iron from the 40’s and 50’s and some left over commie-built crap.

      • 0 avatar
        jamesbrownontheroad

        Not at all. Chinese, Korean and French auto makers doing great business in Cuba. I was saddened to see so few American classics or Soviet era Ladas when I visited. Probably 60-7wharf what I saw were modern imports I’d guess.

  • avatar
    theonewhogotaway

    Having a chance to visit Bulgaria and Romania in the 70s and early 80s, the situation seems very similar to there then. Very few cars around and most of them Wartburgs, Dacias (the Renault 12-derived like the one in the picture) and Trabants. Several Benzes and Volgas (for the members of the party) and some Mosviches (those were mainly taxis). Few Zastavas (think Yugos) or Polski Fiats thrown in the mix. And tons of public transportation in the urban areas.

  • avatar
    Roundel

    Correct me if I am wrong, but is there a White Routan in the pic with the black Passat, or is that a Sharan?

  • avatar
    wallstreet

    Edwin,
    Did your minder explain why the regime is not utilizing 4-ways stop sign? I’m curious why female traffic cop is needed considering the light traffic flow.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Did your minder explain why the regime is not utilizing 4-ways stop sign?

      Four way stops are unusual outside of North America.

      But I think that it’s easy to guess why they don’t use some sort of technological solution, such as roundabouts, lights or some sort of controlled rights of way. When labor is used as inefficiently as it is used in a communist country, then it’s cheaper and easier for the regime to just use surplus labor, which is available in abundance. (They have to feed them, anyway, and they may as well get some loyalist eye candy while they’re at it.)

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      ^ I think Pch101 is right. They have a lot of roundabouts too but mostly the traffic ladies are there to stop everyone from playing a very grown-up version of bumper cars at a busy intersection. Considering there are speeding E and S classes around, a Dacia or any rusty tin can of equivalent age would be scrap metal if a collision occurred.

      And besides, they look rather attractive.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    Edwin, I see the mirror of a motorcycle in one of the pics. Did you see much in the way of motorcycles, and who was riding them when you did? Recognize any marques? Given their transitional role between bicycles and automobiles in much of the world — as opposed to western Europe and the US, where they’re basically sporting goods — I’d think there would be more than a few of them.

    • 0 avatar
      Edwin Loh

      I’m not a motorbike sorta guy and while they do sell bikes in some stores (I saw a couple of hondas, some were modified into trikes to haul stuff) but I didn’t see many on the streets. I think I counted 2 in the week I was there. It’s also -8 deg out there and getting colder. I doubt many would ride even if they did have bikes.

  • avatar
    brettc

    I’m fascinated at how a country like North Korea exists so close to the home country of Hyundai/Kia. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to live there if you’re not one of the privileged ones. I read part of the matador article that someone linked to and was appalled at how defectors are treated. Maybe there will be an uprising some day, but it seems unlikely due to the massive brainwashing they reportedly go through pretty much from birth.

    Really good article and it’s nice to see what they’re driving there. I admit, I might buy a brand new A2 Jetta if I still could in 2011!

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Dude’s coffin was borne by the same mid-70’s Town Car as his father’s was.

    Wonder if, despite all those Benzes given away to the loyal help, if The Family doesn’t have a special kind of Panther Love thing going!

  • avatar
    morbo

    What other vehicle would befit a GodKings final terrestrial voyage. The only other acceptable transport would be a ’65 Continental or a ’76 Fleetwood.

    EVEN THE IMPERIAL AMERICAN DOGS MUST BEAR THE WEIGHT OF THE DEAR LEADER!!!

    (what I imagine the thinking to be)

  • avatar
    Kitt

    Speaking of cars in North Korea:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/world/asia/at-funeral-of-kim-jong-il-american-made-lincoln-limousines-stand-out.html

  • avatar
    Engine Guide

    I am currently working on a new blog. The topic of my blog is engine rebuilding and repairs. I have been checking other blogs with similar topics. I guess my comment is more of a question, what type of cars are most people interested in when they visit your blog?


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