Every week, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Today’s question comes from Shai Axelrud: Does North Korea have traffic laws, and are government or military drivers subject to the same fines?
Yes, we do have traffic laws in North Korea. We drive on the right side of the road just like South Koreans and Americans.
If you are a North Korean watcher, you must have seen one of the traffic girls of Pyongyang. It is one of the most popular jobs for women in North Korea.
So many girls in North Korea dream of being a traffic girl! But in most regions of North Korea excluding Pyongyang, there isn’t demand for them. In most regions outside of Pyongyang, there isn’t much traffic at all and traffic lights are rare.
But Pyongyang is home to numerous top party officials who own cars. Therefore, there is a demand for traffic girls in the nation’s capital. Many North Korean girls dream of becoming a traffic girl just like many South Korean girls dream of becoming flight attendants.
I didn’t grow up in Pyongyang. In my hometown, I got a chance to see traffic girls working in uniform once or twice every time I happened to pass by public offices. Still, the chances to see them were very rare for people in my town: there wasn’t enough traffic or traffic lights!
On the contrary, it was a lot more common to see male traffic officers. They were always in pairs and stationed at every intersection. They would patrol almost every day, despite rain or heavy snow. That’s because they were greedy and always thirsty for money: they went up to every car, motorbike, bicycle or even wheel cart on the street to threaten them in order to get money. That’s how those male traffic officers received bribes from people.
In North Korea, all cars are owned by the government, while bicycles are regarded as private property owned by individuals. Individuals who wish to own a bicycle have to register and obtain a permit, as well as pay a large amount of tax. To avoid paying such a significant sum of money simply for the purpose of possessing a bike, some people choose to attach a fake plate to the back of their bike. If they get caught by those male traffic officers, they have no choice but to do whatever they’re told to do by them – usually a bribery in this case.
Traffic laws for bicycles are far more complicated and diverse than the traffic laws for cars. For example, it used to be that women were not allowed to ride bicycles, and roads for bicycles are reserved exclusively for bike riders. Thus, you’re not allowed to ride a bike on roads reserved for cars.
It is also prohibited for two people to ride on a single bike together. Yet, North Koreans find ways to go around the rules and laws all the time. Some women secretly ride bicycles to go somewhere, and some people give their friends a ride on their bikes, too.
But some get caught by the traffic officers. They take extra efforts to avoid those traffic officers by getting off their bikes and push them while passing by those traffic officers. But sometimes traffic officers hide in unexpected places and corners of the road to catch people on the spot.
Most of the times, people tell you where traffic officers are when they see someone with a bike in the middle of the road. Some people are mean and they don’t tell you even if they have just seen traffic officers on the way, but most people are nice and generous enough to tell you if they see you riding a bike on the road.
These traffic officers do not work for the safety of people: they work solely for money and bribery. For example, people with a wheeled cart sometimes choose to ride on the asphalt road reserved for cars, since the roads reserved for carts are too bumpy. Traffic officers fine the people who ride their carts on the asphalt roads, and the amount of money you have to pay is sometimes half of your monthly income.
I don’t know if this has changed since I left North Korea. But while I was growing up there, the average income for most workers was 1200 won – 2000 won per month. If you get caught riding a bicycle, not in accordance with the rules and laws, you have to pay 1000 won in fines.
You have to pay in cash right on the spot, otherwise they take you to the police office and you have to go to more troubles. It is pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?
I have never tried to get a driver’s license back in North Korea. But, as far as I know, you have to sit for exams and drive by yourself and demonstrate a knowledge of car repair in order to get a driver’s license in North Korea, you also have to know all the parts of the car to get a driver’s license.
It is also rare to see women drivers in North Korea. I have always wanted to ride a motorbike more than a car, but it is illegal for women to ride a motorbike in North Korea. Maybe I will try to ride one here in South Korea!
Written by Je-son Lee
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Featured image by Adam Westerman