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