Amid North Korea’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, the country’s trains are still running and prices of train tickets on the black market are similar to what they were before the pandemic, Daily NK has learned. 

North Koreans are still able to travel to other regions in spite of disease control measures, although it is still difficult for ordinary people to enter Pyongyang, a source in the country told Daily NK on July 9. 

Travelers must carry documentation that proves they are on an official business trip, but it is possible to get around this rule by paying a bribe, he added. 

Trains are the preferred method of travel for North Koreans. Even though there are frequent delays caused by the country’s chronic electricity shortages, demand for train tickets remains high due to the comparatively low price of fares.

As one may expect, the number of passengers on trains is down due to travel restrictions imposed by the government to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Normally, less passengers would mean an increase in ticket fares; according to Daily NK’s source, however, the prices of tickets remain almost unchanged compared to pre-pandemic levels.

For example, the price of an adult or child ticket from Hyesan to Pyongyang is KPW 30,000 on the black market – similar to last year. Taking a “servi-cha” the same distance would, in comparison, cost KPW 400,000. Servi-cha prices have not increased compared to pre-pandemic levels, either, according to the source. 

“Despite the fall in the number of train passengers, [black market vendors] seem to believe that raising prices would [make it harder to sell tickets],” the source said. “In other words, you could say that a ‘market price’ [for tickets] has appeared that train riders are willing to accept.”

The source noted that people who are wealthy or want to transport goods in a “safer manner” use taxis, buses, or trucks. “People traveling without merchandise to sell also tend to favor the simplicity of taking a taxi these days,” he added. 

Official prices of train tickets for routes in the northern part of the country show there is a major gap between official and black market fares. 

A price board for train tickets at a station in Ryanggang Province. / Image: Daily NK

For example, the price of an adult ticket from Kimjongsuk County to Pyongyang is KPW 6,700, a whopping 4.5 times lower than the black market price. 

The black market for train tickets formed in the mid-1990s when passenger numbers began to increase during the Arduous March period. At the time, official ticket sellers began siphoning off a portion of their daily ticket allocations to sell on the black market.  

Sleeper and premium carriage riders have assigned seats, but this is not the case for economy section ticket holders. Train officials have taken advantage of this loophole to sell tickets on the black market to make a living.

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