Image: Never go to work without your battery - Kaesong North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2010-04-28 08:22:47
As everybody knows, East Asia once used to be a bicycle lover’s paradise. Since the early 1900s and until the advent of motor car in recent decades, people in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam relied on bicycles as their major means of transportations. This is still the case in Vietnam and less developed parts of China, even though the motorbike seemingly pushes the old muscle-driven machine to the margins. But what about North Korea?
North Korea is a country of bicycles, even though the relations between the North Korean authorities and this self-propelled transportation contraption have sometimes been rather tense.
To start with, until the early 1990s it was illegal to ride bicycles within the city limits of Pyongyang. This ban was enforced carefully – unlike some other bans which are going to be mentioned in this piece. And, like many other bans in North Korea, it was never explained.
I suspect that in the 1970s and 1980s the North Korean authorities kept in mind that Pyongyang was the city most likely to be seen by foreign visitors, so they did not want the “revolutionary capital” to be associated with hordes of cyclists which, they believed (with some reasons) would be perceived as a telltale sign of an underdeveloped country.
I suspect that in the 1970s and 1980s the North Korean authorities kept in mind that Pyongyang was the city most likely to be seen by foreign visitors, so they did not want the “revolutionary capital” to be associated with hordes of cyclists
If this was indeed the case, this ban agrees well with few other bans which existed during Kim Il Song’s late years – for example, the ban on pictures which would show North Korean women with kids at their backs, or with heavy loads on their heads. In real life, the North Korean mothers of the 1970s and 1980s moved their children in the same fashion Koreans used for generations, on their backs, but North Korean media never published pictures which would depict such an archaic habit. It was OK to demonstrate a mother with a child on her back when the story dealt with old bad times, the days of the feudal landlords and Japanese imperialists, but such custom should not be associated with the Land of Juche where all parents supposedly moved their children in prams (actually, there were no prams in Pyongyang).
But let’s go back to the bicycles. The bicycles became legal in Pyongyang in the early 1990s, not least because around that time the bicycle emerged as an important ingredient of a nascent market economy. When the public transportation began to fall apart, the bicycle became the best and even way to go to the work and, increasingly, to the markets, and also move heavy things around.
However, soon afterwards, another ban was introduced, even though it was seldom enforced. In 1996, Kim Jong Il issued an instruction prohibiting women from riding bicycles. There are two rumors about the origin of this extravagant decision. According to one story, Kim Jong Il realized that women are much more likely to wear trousers when they rode a bicycle, and it was a problem since in those days women were banned from wearing trousers outside the workplace (at fields or at a factory trousers were OK even then). According to another story, the ban was prompted by some traffic accidents for which women on bicycles allegedly were held responsible. At any rate, the new ban agreed well with the then-common North Korean assumption that women could not be trusted with driving.
However, the ban on female cyclists was enforced only very sporadically, in a chain of short campaigns which happened once every few years and lasted a few weeks at most. The ban was, perhaps, unenforceable, since bicycles were the major tool of a market vendor, and the vast majority of such vendors in North Korea were women.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Seemingly, this curious ban did not apply outside Pyongyang, so in the countryside women could cruise on their bicycles more or less undisturbed. It hardly could be otherwise, since the bicycle often plays a role similar to that of a utility vehicle at a Western farm: It does not simply move people, but is used to transport merchandise over long distances.
To be considered roadworthy, a bicycle should have operational brakes, which are regularly checked by police
The bicycles need support infrastructure of repair shops, and such infrastructure indeed appeared in the late 1990s. Such shops are always private, and are seen as a reasonably profitable type of small business.
In 1997, the municipal authorities in the city of Pyongyang introduced the obligatory registration of all bicycles. In 1999 the system was made nationwide. Thus, every North Korean bicycle nowadays is supposed to have a small round red number plate fixed to its front. To be considered roadworthy, a bicycle should have operational brakes, which are regularly checked by police. The bicycle owners are also required by law to have a “riding license” which can be obtained only after passing a short exam. If somebody is found riding without a license, the cyclist has to pay a fine. Riding under the influence is also punishable with a fine. Clearly, all this was an attempt to emulate a car culture in what was then a carless society.
Given the significance of the bicycle in the daily life of North Korea, one should expect that it would become a status symbol, a movable statement of success (pretty much like a car in more affluent societies). This is indeed the case.
Until the early 2000s it was the second-hand Japanese bicycles which enjoyed the greatest prestige in North Korea. For those lucky sailors whose ships visited the Japanese ports, the resale of bicycles was a profitable business, so on the North Korean ships departing from Japan the bicycles were virtually hanging everywhere, and took up entire deck space.
The Chinese bicycles were second in prestige, while the locally produced Kalmaeki bicycles also had their admirers. Interestingly, the Kalmaeki model was assembled in a prison camp, but this obviously did not greatly influence the quality of the product.
However, in the last decade the situation has changed. In 2005 Pyongjin company, a joint venture with a Chinese firm, began to produce bicycles. Cheap and reliable, the Pyongjin bicycles succeeded, and now the company controls some 70 percent of the market. It has been reported that every day the Pyongjin factory produces 500-700 bicycles of different models.
Meanwhile, the motor cars are present on the North Korean streets in ever growing numbers, so even traffic jams are not unheard of any more. This might be an explanation behind a recent decision to build specialized bicycle paths in Pyongyang – even though it also might be another emulation of what some North Korean officials once saw overseas. At any rate, nowadays the authorities believe that bicycles are good, and riding should be encouraged.
As everybody knows, East Asia once used to be a bicycle lover’s paradise. Since the early 1900s and until the advent of motor car in recent decades, people in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam relied on bicycles as their major means of transportations. This is still the case in Vietnam and less developed parts of China, even though the motorbike seemingly pushes the old muscle-driven machine to
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.