Charcoal-powered vehicles have reappeared in North Korea because most ordinary citizens cannot afford high oil prices, North Korean sources inside the country said.
Although charcoal-powered vehicles are slower and more uncomfortable than those that run on gasoline or diesel, many people use them because they offer a less expensive source of transportation, the sources said.
North Korean civilians and soldiers previously drove charcoal-powered trucks—which have not been used in the West since World War II—to deal with fuel shortages. The charcoal produces a flammable gas that powers the engine, causing vehicles to produce heaps of smoke.
They fell out of use in the 1990s and early 2000s with the increased use of gasoline, but have made a comeback as an apparent result of restricted oil flows into North Korea with the tougher economic sanctions imposed on it earlier this year as punishment for conducting nuclear tests and missile launches.
Charcoal-powered vehicles now stand in line and wait for passengers in front of the Aviation University near the Sunam and Pohang areas of Chongjin, capital of North Hamgyong province, a source from the province said.
The vehicles, which are registered in the name of the business that owns them, do this to earn money, he said.
“The charcoal-driven vehicles that run in Chongjin are the Seung-ri 58 (Victory 58) models that North Korea produced, and the Chinese Hae-Bang-Ho (Liberation) models,” the source said.
Despite the slow speed of the smoke-belching vehicles, “many common residents use them because the fare is cheap,” he said.
“Since North Korean authorities have commanded residents to stop using trains, people have turned to charcoal-powered vehicles,” he said, adding that they transport both people and their belongings, and goods for businesses.
No traffic tickets
There are various types of charcoal-powered vehicles, including a 20-ton heavy-duty truck, and one-ton, 15-ton and 2.5-ton freight cars, the source said.
Though regular motor vehicles are subject to fines imposed by police, charcoal-powered vehicles are not subject to traffic regulations, the source said. This keeps down the price of a ride for passengers who do not have to worry about owners passing fines on to them through fare increases.
“Charcoal-driven vehicles are actually exempt from abiding by regular traffic regulations, so most of the vehicles are affiliated with military units,” said another source from North Hamgyong province.
If traffic wardens do stop the vehicles, the machines spread pungent smoke around the side of the road, so they let them pass, he said.
The source noted one recent incident in which some Chinese on the other side of the border spotted a charcoal-powered vehicle. They thought something was wrong with it because of the copious amounts of smoke it was producing and yelled, “North Korean people, the vehicle is on fire!” to the driver as he drove along a road near Onsong county in North Hamgyong province near the border with China.
Wood as fuel
About 70 percent of the charcoal-powered vehicles currently operating have military unit license plates, the source said.
“Military units that operate deep in the mountains or in rural communities can cut down trees there without the regulatory oversight of the Forest Conservancy Administration” to get wood to fuel their charcoal-powered vehicles, the source said.
In a not-so-strange coincidence, the cost of wood has increased along with the price of gasoline and diesel, the sources said.
Some drivers even use corncobs coated with used oil, which is less expensive than wood, to power their trucks, but they produce dark, acrid smoke, the sources said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.