[News analysis] Pyongyang’s rapidly commercializing transportation network

Posted on : 2019-04-28 13:51 KST Modified on : 2019-04-28 13:51 KST
Traditionally state-run operations are becoming increasingly privatized
An image of Pyongyang taxis published by Russian News Agency TASS on May 31
An image of Pyongyang taxis published by Russian News Agency TASS on May 31

On the first and second pages of its Aug. 4, 2018, edition, North Korea’s state-run newspaper the Rodong Sinmun covered leader Kim Jong-un’s “on-the-spot guidance” of the Pyongyang trolleybus factory, a bus repair center, and the Songsan trolley office. According to the newspaper, Kim made the following remarks during his visit to these sites: “It has made me uncomfortable to see the people using worn-out forms of public transportation, and it’s always weighed on my heart to see the gradually increasing number of taxis on our streets. [. . .]” Kim’s quoted remarks were unusually candid for coverage in the Rodong Sinmun.

The fare for the state-run trolleybuses in Pyongyang is 5 won, in North Korea’s version of the currency. That’s “so cheap you wouldn’t bother picking the money up off the ground,” according to a 20-something defector from Pyongyang. This contrasts with the US$2 basic fare for taxis, which are basically run by the private sector. Every 500m that the taxi runs costs an additional 49 cents. According to the official exchange rate, US$1 is worth about 100-110 won, but by the market exchange rate, it’s about 8,000 won. The basic fare for a cab, in other words, is enough to ride a trolleybus 3,200 times, a breathtaking gap. That explains why Kim, upon seeing the newly manufactured trolleybus, said he felt “as thrilled today as if I’d plucked a star from the sky.”

That said, a 20-something defector from Pyongyang nonchalantly recalled “taking a taxi with some friends when one of us hurt their leg.” The defector was a clever young person whose business endeavors had prospered; while in Pyongyang, the defector had carried around no fewer than three mobile phones. But for most residents of North Korea who reside outside of the cities, the taxi, as a means of transportation, might as well occupy another universe.

Demand for public transportation in Pyongyang is supported by four trolley lines (Pyongyang Station–Mangyongdae, Nakrang–Munsu, Pyongyang Station–West Pyongyang, and Songsin–Taedong Bridge) integrated into a 78-km network of 10 trackless trolleybus lines, two subway lines (Chollima Line and Hyoksin Line), and between 33 and 36 city bus lines. This rigid system is hardly adequate to meet the transportation needs of Pyongyang’s more than 3 million residents. While these state-run forms of transportation only cost 5 won, “the lines are extremely long, so people who can afford it use private buses,” said a man from Pyongyang in his 20s.

 2013. (Yonhap News)
2013. (Yonhap News)

Rise of privately operated taxis and buses to accommodate growing demand

What this defector was referring to are privately operated small buses, carrying between 10 and 30 passengers, which are called “sseobicha,” short for service cars, or “beori beosu,” meaning money-making private buses. They run along the same routes as the trolleybuses, only during the morning and evening rush hour, but cost much more than the public options. Though these buses borrow the names of government agencies and corporations, some of their actual owners hire drivers and conductors and handle fueling and repairs themselves. These owners are a sort of small-time capitalists. Even though it’s illegal in North Korea for an individual to hire someone else for their labor, such examples have been on the rise over the past few years.

As many as 6,000 taxis are currently in operation in Pyongyang, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said during a hearing at the National Assembly on Mar. 26. That’s up sharply from the several dozen vehicles at the birth of the industry in the late 2000s and even from the 1,500 vehicles that China’s state-run Xinhua News reported in March 2016. There are five or six taxi companies, with brands such as Ryomyong (affiliated with the cabinet), KKG (affiliated with the military) and Koryo Airlines (affiliated with the eponymous airline). Though these taxi companies are ostensibly operated by the cabinet, military, or state-run companies, some of their taxis are apparently registered by individuals who have bought them with their own money and drive them themselves, making set payments to the company and pocketing the rest of the profits. Some taxis in South Korea are operated in a similar manner.

N. Korea has traditionally planned urban spaces to minimize transportation networks

North Korea has long planned spaces and organized society so as to shorten, insofar as possible, the distance between home and work. That has reduced the demand for transportation. Another transportation principle has been for trains to serve as the core and for buses to play a supplementary role. At first, buses were only operated within a radius of 30km, but since the 1980s, they’ve also taken over some intercity routes, at a distance of 200-300km. Since 2010, a long-distance intercity bus line has opened, covering the 700km between Pyongsong, just north of Pyongyang, and Chongjin, in the northeast.

Pyongsong is a portal for Pyongyang, which people aren’t allowed to access freely, and a logistics hub: its intercity bus terminal has lines that connect to around 50 major cities around the country. In effect, that constitutes a national transportation network. The actual operators of these intercity bus lines are individuals with a lot of money. On paper, at least, the long-range bus lines connecting major cities such as Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hamhung are operated by a transportation joint venture under the Ministry of People’s Security. But in reality, they are established and operated by individual North Korean investors and by a Beijing transportation company, with permission from the government.

North Korea’s social organizational principles of keeping homes close to workplaces and subordinating roads to railways have been rocked to the core by the rapid growth of the markets that resulted from the famine in the 1990s, which are euphemistically referred to as the “Arduous March.” While the trains that are the center of the long-distance transportation network are capable of being affordably operated at scale, they have one fatal flaw: they’re too slow. Products that are prohibited from being sold commercially or transported from one area to another, such as rice and coal, can’t be loaded onto trains. That’s why there’s abundant demand for transporting goods from Sunam Market in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, to Okjeon Market in Pyongsong in a 10-ton container truck, even though shipping costs US$1,000. The majority of these vehicles are also effectively owned by individuals, despite nominally belonging to government agencies.

Because of marketization, “the pendular transportation needs of people who used to only commute between home and work have undergone a qualitative transformation into Brownian motion, in which they scatter in all directions,” said An Byeong-min, a senior analyst with the Korea Transport Institute. Brownian motion refers to the irregular motion of tiny particles in a gas or liquid, reminiscent of the way that cigarette smoke disperses in the air or ink diffuses in water. Most significantly, the growing preference for faster modes of transportation that can go anywhere is connected with the dissemination of the capitalist aphorism, formerly unfamiliar in North Korea, “time is money.” The growing numbers of taxi users in particular herald the appearance of a new agent in the collectivist society of North Korea, where solidarity has been regarded as sacrosanct: namely, the individual.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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