Pyongyang taxi
A taxi driving on the street in Sinni-dong, Pyongyang. / Image: Marcelo Druck, Creative Commons, Flickr

A taxi driver in Pyongyang suffering from mounting financial difficulties committed suicide after failing to pay a portion of his income owed to his taxi company, Daily NK has learned.

“The taxi driver was stressed out every day because of the money owed and ultimately chose to end his life,” a source based in Pyongyang told Daily NK on Monday.

The taxi driver’s death has reportedly caused alarm among Pyongyangites given that cab driving is considered one of the more desirable professions in North Korea.

“Pyongyangites who heard about the suicide are saying that North Korea’s economy really must be doing badly (for something like that to happen),” another source in Pyongyang told Daily NK.

“Pyongyangites may be well-off, but they don’t take many taxis these days. Taxi drivers are having a harder time making a living,” the source added.  

The source speculated that international sanctions on North Korea may have contributed to the fall in taxi rides in recent months because Pyongyang denizens are on a whole spending less.

Daily NK sources in Pyongyang noted that while cabbies may be earning less than before, taxi companies still take out the same amount of fees from drivers’ paychecks. 

“Pyongyang taxi drivers have to pay taxi companies around 100 dollars per day in fees. Drivers for Air Koryo’s taxi service pay USD 80 while those working for Kumgang Company pay USD 130,” one Pyongyang-based source confirmed. 

In contrast, South Korean taxi companies require their drivers to pay KRW 135,000 (USD 113) per day. South Korea plans to phase out this mandatory payment system by January 2020. 

In North Korea, at least up until last year, taxi drivers in Pyongyang were reportedly able to earn at least USD 50 and even up to USD 100 per day despite the cab company fees.

In recent months, North Korean taxi drivers have had trouble covering fuel costs much less the taxi company fees even if they work all day, Daily NK sources reported. 

“Taxi drivers have been struggling a lot these days,” another Pyongyang-based source said. “They say that even if they circle the city day and night they cannot find passengers.” 

The base fee for a taxi in Pyongyang is currently USD 2, with an additional 50 US cents added for every 500 meters. One dollar currently equals KPW 8,310 in Pyongyang. Considering that a kilo of rice costs about KPW 5,000, taxi rides in Pyongyang are not cheap for ordinary North Koreans. 

Cabbies in Pyongyang also reportedly face stiff competition, even from taxi companies owned by members of the Kim Jong Un family.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in December 2018 (in Korean) that a taxi company affiliated with the Ministry of People’s Safety (MPS) may be owned by Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju. Taxis affiliated with Ri’s company are referred to as “Ri Sol-ju’s taxis” by local cabbies. 

Ri’s taxis are reportedly a source of frustration for many Pyongyang cabbies because they are aggressively picking up most paying customers in the city. 

*Translated by Violet Kim

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