North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. Missiles, seemingly Hollywood-inspired car chases, and even puppies have all led to an interesting news cycle for the Hermit Kingdom, ensuring it a place in the world’s headlines for much of the past year. This got me thinking on the country, and my mind being mine, I immediately began thinking of cars. Did North Korea have cars beyond miserable Russian rust-buckets? With all the international sanctions that have been against them for much of their life, I figured there wouldn’t be too much desire for automobiles, when things like food and medicine were more on the mind.
As it turns out, North Korea is populated by people mostly like you and me. Sure, they may have to basically pray to a man-child that doesn’t have a butt-hole*, but for the most part, humans are going to human. And that means North Koreans like their cars: they just have a much harder time getting them. This difficulty does result in less car’s coming into the country, but it makes those that do even more interesting.
Initially, North Korea was not exactly viewed as the economical, social, cultural, and just all-around black hole that it is viewed as today. In fact, all the way through the early 1980’s the two Korea’s were far closer economically-speaking than most people would suspect. Although South Korea was still slightly ahead of it’s Northern counter-part, two factors led to this near-parity, economically. These are; the market strength of the Soviet Union and other Communist powers at the time, which were almost the sole markets for the North’s imports and exports, as well as the less-than-savory series of governments the South was working through, which turned off international partnerships.
However, by the late 1980’s things were changing. South Korea had shed its dictators and was accepted enough in the world to host the 1988 Olympics. On the other hand, the Communist sphere was crumbling, and North Korea doubled down on its dictatorial-style of government, attempting to use tyrannical control make up for the loss of imports and exports to the rest of the Communist sphere.
It didn’t work for the North. Massive famine, economical depression, and ever-increasing seclusion has led to the present-day North Korea we all live with. But what does all of that mean for cars up there? Throughout the ups and downs of the Kingdom’s recent history, car ownership has remained the same: state-controlled. Automobiles in the North were entirely owned and controlled by the Communist Party, being doled out for party business and to officials. Supposedly (more on that later).
What this meant was that the vast majority of vehicles were various old Gaz’s, Volga’s, and other equally-Soviet wheels. Most North Koreans never had a chance of owning a vehicle, and instead, these were used for military purposes, given to party officials, or used as a perk or incentive for extremely well-connected individuals. While the masses had to make do with what they were (or were not) given, North Korea makes sure that the people that need to be happy, are happy.
In North Korea, those people tend to have the family name of “Kim”, if you know what I’m sayin. When you have an entire country at your disposal, riding around in a Soviet rust-bucket is less than desirable. This means, that despite the sanctions surrounding the Kim family and the North Korean people, the Hermit Kingdom still has its eyes on the Western world’s wheels and manages to get a few across its borders every year.
These cars tend to—although not always—be higher-end marques used as state transports, rewards for Party and/or military men, and as a way to occupy and distract the newly formed, extremely small, Donju upper-middle class that is forming in North Korea’s capitol. While I can’t list every car they have managed to sneak onto their roads, here are a few of the more notable examples:
Again, those are just a few of the internationally illicit sets of wheels rolling around North of the DMZ. Hummers, classic Volvo sedans, and even modified limousines have all made it up there, through a various number of methods. In the simplest sense, it truly is not that hard to sneak something as small as a car into North Korea, when you only have to fool eyes looking from afar. While the news cycle would have you think the country is totally sealed off, there are in fact quite a few ports of entry into the country.
The land borders between China and Russia, as well as ports on both the East and West side, all receive trade and aid items from friendly nations. While there aren’t many, North Korea does have a few trading allies throughout the world. Slipping a car here and there into a shipping container or onto a train car means that the Kim Regime can get almost any car they want by simply using an intermediary to buy one on the private market in a friendly, unsanctioned country.
While some individual cars may have their own story, such as the Volvo taxis or Kim’s Lincoln limo, this is generally how the country receives its Western vehicles. While some governments would love to see this dry up into nothingness, there are a few factors that will ensure that this almost certainly will continue to happen. Again, as long as trade of some sort is moving through the Kingdom’s borders, it is relatively easy to sneak one in.
And North Korea has plenty of incentive to continue sneaking them in. Not only do they want to (have to) continue pleasing the established group of aristocrats and ruling classes, the success of their Southern cousins is not unnoticed by the masses, despite the State’s best efforts. This, combined with a directive from the Kim’s that allowed some semblance of private trade among the country, has led to a rise in a very small class of eager consumers, called Donju, or “Masters of Money” in Korean.
These Donju see what they could have in the South, and they want it for themselves. The government, instead of stamping down on these desires, use them as a way to informally collect taxes on this new social class. A government office, Office 39, was set up to funnel luxury goods into their hands, and their money directly into government—and Kim’s—hands. To explain why some would like to see this money dry up, some claim this money is used to keep Kim Jong-un supplied with his luxury lifestyle, as well as helping to fund the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Despite some peoples desires, I do not see the North Korean illicit car market drying up any time soon. In fact, I only see it growing as more and more money is made by the citizens of the country. As they make money and experiment with their form of communistic capitalism, they will want goods to spend that money on, such as cars. The North Korean state also sees this and is trying their hands at producing their own consumer goods for their citizens. For example, to fully control the car market and introduce a higher volume of nicer cars, the government is creating their own car company, pictured above, called Naenara. While these will probably be cheap Chinese-made vehicles, they show the direction the Hermit Kingdom may take.
Edit: Some people have asked about my sources. Here ya go!
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.