North Korea Bans Foreign Cars

Life in hardscrabble North Korea gets harder, as authorities crack down on a key segment of the unofficial economy.

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North Korea Cars 305 PAJU, South Korea: Vehicles head to the North Korean Kaesong joint industrial zone, Nov. 24, 2008.
AFP/Kim Jae-Myoung

SEOULAuthorities in North Korea have begun enforcing a ban on the use of foreign cars in the isolated Stalinist state, putting further pressure on a population already struggling to survive.

Beginning in early February, Pyongyang's National Defense Commission began enforcing a directive banning imported cars and ordered a crackdown.

According to a cross-border Chinese merchant, those targeted by the crackdown are primarily officials who take bribes to fraudulently register cars to state-owned enterprises or military bases.

We’re pretty much done for."

North Korean car owner

Authorities also want to stop North Korean mechanics from rebuilding and modifying imported cars by changing them from right-hand-drive Japanese vehiclesthe Japanese drive on the leftto left-hand-drive vehicles for use on North Korean roads.

"The National Defense Commission regards failure to enforce its directive banning imported cars as a provocative act," said the Chinese merchant, who is a frequent traveler to North Korea.

"Various officials have been instructed to let go of the imported used cars, and many of those who failed to comply with that directive are in trouble now. In particular, officials working for the Forestry Department appear to have been reprimanded," he added.

Deadlines expire

In February 2007, the National Defense Commission issued a nationwide directive to eliminate imported cars.

Foreign passenger cars were to be removed within three months, while foreign freight vehicles were to be phased out within two years.

National Defense Commission officials were clamping down in particular on right-hand-drive used cars imported from Japan, ordering that they all be scrapped.

Sources said this could be because supreme leader Kim Jong Il dislikes the sight of Japanese cars, most of which are smuggled into the country and given fake military license plates, on North Korean roads.

But they also note that the North Korean military is experiencing shortages both of fuel and of the hard currency needed to buy it.

One expert suggested that the National Defense Commission may want to prevent imported cars from burning the fuel that keeps military vehicles on the road.

Conversion of used cars

The order to scrap right-hand-drive Japanese cars prompted a rush by the owners of imported cars to convert their vehicles to left-hand drive, a complicated and expensive process.

In Songpyong, a district of Chungjin city in Northern Hamgyong province, mechanics at the Soosong Tractor Plant and bus factories are switching steering wheels from right to left, sources said.

Owners of the modified cars then have them registered to military bases or factories that are authorized to operate the cars, paying their officials about 300,000 North Korean won (U.S. $100) monthly for the favor.

But even converted vehicles are no longer slipping through the net, North Korean car owners say.

"We’re pretty much done for," one such car owner said. "From here on, the only vehicles allowed on the roads of North Korea are military vehicles."

"Life is already very hard, but if our cars are taken away and scrapped, the situation will be terrible, and our very survival in jeopardy," the car owner said.

Currently, Japanese cars make up around 80 percent of imported vehicles in North Korea.

Original reporting in Korean by Jung Young. Korean service director: Francis Huh. Translated and researched by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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