The Cars (and Some Trucks) of North Korea

North Korea has long been a secretive regime, with the little information getting to the rest of the world seeing heavy manipulation and censorship. But the pictures we do see from the country's cities are always short on cars.

That's because of restrictions on ownership, restrictions on fuel, and the fact that most people in the country couldn't afford a car even if they could buy one. And unlike Cuba, North Korea never had a roaring 1950s full of American cars to hold onto and repair by any means necessary.

Despite that, there are still some interesting cars living and driving in the North. So here's a look at the cars of North Korea.

I'll start with what might be the most legendary cars in the country. At least from outside. That's a fleet of 1974 Volvo 144s. North Korea was showing big growth in natural resources in the late 1960s, and a Swedish group wanted to get some of that money by doing more business in North Korea. So Volvo sold 1,000 144s, mostly in green, to the country. But the bill was never paid.

Volvo is still sending them a bill twice a year, and interest has run it up to nearly $500 million. At this point, Volvo can probably give up though.

The UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) 469 is to communist countries what the Jeep was to US forces. If US forces still built and drove the original Willys Jeep. The Russian-built off-roader was introduced in 1971, replacing a 1950s era design with a slightly more modern one. Slightly. The name was changed from the slightly awkward (and possibly chuckle inducing) 469 to the much more flowing 31512 in 1985. Sort of like how the Lincoln Zephyr became the MKZ.

It was built for the army and civilian use for decades, with seating for seven and a variety of four-cylinder engines that struggled to top 110 hp. It's one of the standard vehicles of the North Korean Army.

In 2007, intended to continue until 2009, Kim Jong-il ordered all Japanese-built vehicles confiscated. Allegedly because "he saw a Japanese car that wasn't working blocking the road," but more commonly reported as a response to increasing private car ownership and sanctions against NK cargo ships docking in Japan.

Some classic Detroit iron still made it to The North. President Kim Jong-il's body was transported to burial in this Lincoln. It was also used for the funeral of his father in 1994. This hearse looks to be a 1976 Continental. How did it get in the country? The extra side-mirrors on the fender suggest it was originally sold in Japan, and possibly shipped from there. There were matching Lincoln limos in the procession, although they lack the fender mirrors

North Korea has their own domestic automaker. Pyeonghwa ("peace") was started as a joint venture between the government and a South Korean church. The plant can supposedly build up to 10,000 cars a year but has never built more than a few hundred. And there is only one dealer, located in Pyongyang.

Their models include copies of the Ssangyong Chairman (a car based on the 1984 Mercedes-Benz E-Class), a rebadged Jinbei Haise microbus (and older Toyota Hi-Ace), and the Pyeonghwa Paso, a minibus and truck with a nose that was "inspired" by a BMW. Or this SUV that looks like a Kia Sportage, with a whopping 128 hp. Sorry, 127.9 hp.

Gasoline is at a premium in North Korea. And if you can find it, they charge by weight, not volume. That's right, gas by the kg. That doesn't make it more expensive, it's just strange. Because of the cost, there are many trucks that run on wood gas. They can turn coal or wood into a gas that will drive an engine. More or less. Like this truck.

There are some Russian cars too, not just trucks. Like the GAZ Volga. They were built from 1956 to 2010, but the 1970-1985 models are the most common. The Volga is one of the classic Soviet cars, powered by four and eight-cylinder engines. This was the luxury model (when compared with the Lada, at least), and is used as taxis or executive cars in the country.

The taxi fleet includes those vintage Volvos, but they are modernizing the fleet lately. There are semi-private fleets made largely of China-built BYD F3 models. The F3 has a 1.5L four-cylinder engine. It's also strikingly similar to the 2006 Toyota Corolla. The Malaysian Proton Wira is also popular. Popular being relative. Pyongyang has nearly three million residents, but only around 1,000 taxis (most only permitted to drive every other day). Compare that to the nearly 5,000 licenced cabs in Toronto.

But of course, like any other country, there are luxury cars for government officials. Audis are now common, but Mercedes-Benz has been the preferred marque for years. And the more important the person, the higher the model or engine. So if you see an older 280 SE, you can probably ignore it. But if the car honking at you is a 560 SEL? You had better get a move on. 

 

Strange rides 2/5/2018 8:00:00 AM