Bike Thiefs Faster than the Ghosts

[imText1]Surfing on the internet, I found an article that said, “you need license to ride a bicycle in North Korea.”

Of course South Koreans would be surprised to find out that you need to obtain a license even for the bicycles in North Korea. Actually there are license by certification of registration.

“Women Should Not Ride Bicycles”

Where there are almost no taxis or buses of any sort, bicycles are the only means of transportation. “What kind of bicycle a person rides” decides the wealth of that person. Recently in North Korea, those called “rich” are typically wearing Kim Jong Il-style jumper, they ride bicycles made in Japan, and spend more than 5000won a night going around the market. You could call a person like this to belong to the “high-mid class.”

There are many stories related to bicycle in North Korea. Around the year 1996, there had been an order (from the government) to “Do Not Allow Women to Ride Bicycles” in Pyongyang city. The reason was that women do not look “nice” in pants traditionally (a pervasive thought in North Korea), and that one day Kim Jong Il saw a woman riding a bicycle wearing pants. He ordered, “It looks horrible. Do not let women ride bicycles.”

It was not sure if women could still wear pants or not but in any case, transportation safe guards (police on duty for the traffic in South Korea) confiscated any bicycle rode by a woman when they saw one.

In the case of an expensive bicycle, you could get it back if you bribed with a “sufficient amount” which was usually more than half of the cost for the bicycle. If it was an old bicycle, it was better to not get it back.

10 Years of Wage of a Worker for a Bicycle

You can ride a bicycle only if you register it and obtain a number plate. Although no personal possession is allowed in North Korea, bicycles are the only personal belonging you can register as your private asset.

However, the price of a bicycle is pretty expensive. In 1995, the monthly wage of an average worker was 100won, and at the time, the North Korea-made bicycle “Jebi” cost around 3000won to 5000won. Another North Korea-made bicycle known as “Galmegi,” which was of better quality, cost about 10,000won. Galmegi bicycles were made at the gulag located in Chungjin.

Because people in farming areas and other local places do their business by carrying around small bags, they prefer North Korean or Chinese bicycles that tend to be much bigger than Japanese ones which are faster and stylish yet smaller.

Price for the bicycles from Japan varies according to its function, but if it has a cover on the chain then it is immediately highly priced. When the monthly wage for an average worker was about 2500, a Japanese bicycle with a cover cost over 50,000won and without the cover about 30,000won.

If the bicycle has a lighter on, the price also increases. A bicycle with one light costs around 30,000~50,000 won, two lights costs up to 100,000won. Due to the serious inflation, a Japanese bicycle is traded at 200,000~300,000won.

As you have already noticed, bicycles are precious personal belongings that one can only buy after saving his wage for an entire decade. There were so many bicycle robbers that the government made the owners register. Even with the registration system there were bicycles that disappeared over night, so some people took their bicycles inside their room at night.

Furthermore, there were professional bicycle robbers who became rich. One can become rich if he succeeds only once, but if he succeeds several times, he silently becomes known as a person who can earn a lot of money. Since they are intelligent, they do not rob bicycles in their neighborhood or even in their region, but they go as far as to another province to rob bicycles and bring back the money home when they succeed. Since such robbery do not hurt them immediately, the people who live near him do not report on him, and even when suspected, since the robbers usually bribe the officers a lot, they are rarely arrested.

A Swindler Who Buys a Bicycle of 30,000won With 800won

In the mid 1990s, there was a famous professional swindler who mainly did his “work” with bicycles, and known as Mr. Jang living in Jeongju, North Pyongan province. Jang’s swindling method was as good as to amaze a ghost. There are many methods and let me introduce one of them.

First of all, Jang cut paper into pieces of the same size of 100won bill. At the time when the 100won bill was the biggest bill in North Korea, he made a bunch of money made out of paper that looks to be about 10,000won and put several of real 100bills on the top and bottom of the bunch. It is a bunch of 10,000won but only with 300won to 500won.

He carries couple of these bunches in a transparent plastic bag and goes to the bicycle market.

He does not forget to take a pretty girl with him. After meeting a pretty girl, he buys presents and treats her to dinner then tells her that he is “the owner of foreign currency earning office.” He buys her heart and takes her around, and by the evening he asks her “do you want me to buy you a bicycle?” as if he really means it and takes her to the market.

In South Korea it is same as a man telling his lover, “do you want me to buy a sports car?” and who would reject to such an offer?

Jang would then pick one of the nicest looking Japanese bicycles in the store and asks the lady, “Honey, how about this one?” The lady is surprised to hear the word “honey” but she thinks he likes her that much already and blushes. Then the owner of the store thinking they are a couple comes and explains about the bicycle.

Jang then says, “I should at least ride it once before I buy it, right?” and leave the girl with bunches of 100won bills in a plastic bag beside the owner.

Since there is money and the wife, the owner of the store allows the man to try on the bicycle without much doubt. The market is pretty big and there are a lot of people. Jang goes around the market once or twice then goes into the crowd and soon disappears.

After a while that Jang does not come back, the owner of the store takes the plastic bag from the woman and searches through. There are only about 800won. Basically he sold a bicycle of 30,000won with 800won. The owner of the store threatens the woman, “If you don’t bring the bicycle back, I will kill you,” but the woman too is deceived the same.

For three or four nights Jang rides the bike day and night and sells it in a far away place. Of course, he himself is not deceived in the same manner.

Useless Registration System

In order to prevent such robbing and swindling, the North Korean government launched a registration system. The security officials often ask the personal ID, the registration certificate and the plate number of people riding bikes when they see them. It is just like police asking for driver’s license to the drivers in South Korea.

However, even if one had the registration certificate, since there is no computerized information system, there is not way to check whether the holder of the registration certificate is the actual owner of the bicycle. Just by instinct, if the owner looks upright, he is considered as the owner, but if he hesitating, then he is immediately considered as a robber.

Another purpose of the bicycle registration system is to keep the record on private assets of the people. People are obliged to register everything that is not provided by the government and verify how they obtained it and from where. The security office and the people’s department first asks, “where does the money come from” when they hear a family buying a TV.

When the source is not clearly verified, the owners are put under surveillance and then later legal administration confiscates the private belongings. When one registers for a bicycle, he also has to report in detail the cost at the store the bicycle was bought from. The people in one voice complain “We live so poorly because our nation is so good at preying on people.”

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