Transport to northern provincial cities is receiving a boost with a growing number of minibus taxi services available to residents in North Korea. People are now able to travel between Pyongsong in South Pyongan Province and Hyesan in Ryanggang Province within 24 hours using these services. While the distance is approximately 300 km as the crow flies, the mountainous terrain makes for a longer journey.
A source in South Pyongan Province informed Daily NK on November 24 that short and long distance taxi services have sprung up, allowing residents to reach cities in the northern border regions. Private taxis are the only way people can travel quickly from inland cities to border cities like Hoeryong and Hyesan.
“Drivers from inland regions are communicating with drivers from border towns, and the two gather their passengers and agree on a meeting point somewhere in the middle. They will then transfer their passengers and return to their respective starting points. Hamhung in South Hamgyong Province has for example become a transfer spot for drivers coming from South Pyongan Province who cannot make it to North Hamgyong Province on their own,” he added.
The source gave pricing information as well, saying that, “it costs 100 Chinese yuan for the Pyongsong-Hamhung first leg, then another 100 yuan to get to Hyesan after transferring, making it a 200 yuan trip in total. These long-distance taxis are minibuses rather than sedans, and customers are not able to haggle down the price.”
Although residents are officially required to obtain permission papers to visit the border region, drivers typically allow passengers to simply pay a higher fare if they do not have the required paperwork.
The source added that before such taxi services became available, “people had to endure a 4-8 day train journey from Pyongsong to Hyesan, often disrupted by blackouts. Although the taxi is expensive, many find its 7x faster speed well worth the cost.”
Tickets for the train from Sariwon to Rason, run by Korean State Railway, officially cost only around 3,500 KPW through the state pricing system (around 50,000 KPW in black market prices). But because passengers can expect to spend a lot of money during the course of the journey buying food, cigarettes, and alcohol to kill time during the delays, most do not consider the minibus taxi price much more expensive. Time is money, as they say, which means the rail service is quickly falling out of favor.
The markets are quickly responding to consumer demand for various kinds of transport, from minibuses and taxis to motorbikes, electric bicycles, and regular pushbikes.
“The interesting thing is that buses, taxis, motorbikes, and other means of transportation are concentrated in the high-traffic areas of cities across the entire country, so these areas near major train stations for instance are developing rapidly to cater to the transportation needs of customers at every income level,” a source in South Hwanghae Province explained.
Sariwon, Pyongsong, Hamhung, and Hyesan have seen the most development in transportation services, according to the source. In each of these cities, areas near the main train station have become congested with short and long-distance taxi ‘stations’ as well as motorbike and bicycle parking areas.
Both sources explained that while trains and personal bus services have been bringing people to the border region since the early 2000s, motorbikes and personal taxi and minibus services that have shown up during the 2010s have succeeded in finally connecting the entire country.
Prices and the mode of transport depend on each passenger’s situation. Merchants or those carrying bulk items typically need a large bus service, with charges based on cargo size. Taxis and minibuses do not allow passengers to bring large items. Buses can be slower because they tend to drop each passenger off at a different destination, while taxis guarantee a set time by only ferrying passengers to a single major destination.