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Cars North Korea Should Never Have

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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.

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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).

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The normal North Korean-fare.

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.

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Not only does Kim ride in an armored limo, any attackers would have to get through his human barrier as well.

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:

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These Audi’s would not be out of place on any road in the South, and yet they are cruising around Pyongyang. Newer cars such as these could be Party cars, Military leadership cars, or even “purchased” by a member of the Donju (again, more on that later).
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This is not a new practice, as older German cars cruising the streets will testify. While cars such as these would have begun in the hands of the highest party members, they will have since been handed down the chain of importance. That being said, the luxury of having access to any car is a huge one in North Korea.
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Sometimes people are more equal than others. Pictures of this North Korean Hummer H2 are pretty prevalent on the internet, although the source of the vehicle is not known. There is speculation that a South Korean brought it into the jointly North-South run Kaesong Industrial Region, where it got overlooked in some of the drama that occurred there.
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The S600 Pullman Guard Limousines pictured here as well as above ended up in North Korea recently to be used by the Kim family and other very important people within the Hermit Kingdom. While some have been retained as state armored transports, others have been modified into parade transports, as this one has. Mercedes claims to not have any knowledge on how they arrived in the Kingdom.
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It is unknown if the Rolls Royce pictured here actually belongs to North Korea, but Kim Jong-un recently used it as transportation during an international summit in Singapore. Those S600 Pullman’s may have given Kim a taste of the high-life he can’t ignore now. There is a possibility that Kim borrowed the car from a Singaporean business partner, as the city-state still trades with North Korea.


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When Kim Jong-il died, the Kingdom certainly went all out on his funeral, including bringing out this armored, mid-70’s Lincoln Limousine. Not much is known of this car, beyond that it exists in North Korea for some reason. Judging from the odd placement of the mirrors on the fenders, it can be assumed that this Lincoln began life as a Japanese-market car. There are unconfirmed reports that there were some car dealers in the 70’s and 80’s from Japan who would do some side business on the down-low with North Korea, importing specific cars ordered by the country and sneaking them over, meaning this fits the narrative of certain people. It also appears that the limo conversion was done before being shipped out of America, as some people claim to recognize the mark of coach builder Moloney from Illinois.
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Oddly enough, North Korea once received a shipment of 1000 Volvo 144 sedans, to be used as taxi cabs throughout the major cities of the North. Sweden, who at the time had some semblance of relations with the country, were happy to export mining equipment, transportation, food, and medicine to them. Sweden simply saw a paying customer. That is, until North Korea stiffed them over the Volvo’s, souring trade relations to the point that Sweden joined the rest of the world in trying their hardest to ignore the North Korean country. North Korea still owes Sweden over $300,000,000 once inflation and interest are taken into account.

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.

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That phone has a lot going on around the back….

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.

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All of the cars are about as technically proficient as a Toyota Yaris. So, much better than the North could do on their own.

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!


Like the article? Want to read more like it? Check out my website, for weekly history articles and more besides. If I missed something or if you have a question, feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to hit the like button.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

2 thoughts on “Cars North Korea Should Never Have Leave a comment

  1. This is a very interesting read. Thanks for the insightful article. I always wonder myself how can they have so many imported cars. And the story about Volvo one is a nice touch.

    By the way, I think China and NK are a trade partner? Do you think we will see more china make cars in the country soon?
    I know that because from one of the youtube channel it said the new taxis in NK was funded by some Chinese tech investor.


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