[Photo] Taxi driving a dream occupation for middle-aged North Korean men

A taxi at the entrance of a village in North Pyongan Province. Image: Daily NK (taken in July 2018)

Taxi driving has become a sought-after occupation among North Korean men with the perception that it is a stable, high-paying job.

Those hoping to become a driver usually need capital to buy a car and pass a difficult licensing process before they can work. Once eligible, however, there is the potential to earn a lot of money, something that has attracted many men in their 30s and 40s to the profession.

A North Korean trader who recently visited China told Daily NK that “North Korean men used to trade or work abroad to earn [considerable amounts] of money, but now because of the sanctions many are running their own private home businesses or working as taxi drivers.”

He added that those hoping to become taxi drivers get their licenses from driver education offices in their home districts and must pay 120,000 won (around US $150) each month to their taxi company. They must also give a bribe of more than $500 to get their license issued and maintain their licensed status.

A new car in North Korea can cost more than US $10,000, while a used one can go for $5-6,000. Small minivans, called “nonggubang,” go for around $5,000.

There are also cars that sell for around $2,000 but these are generally unsuitable for use as taxis. Most taxi drivers prefer used cars that have a reasonable exterior and run well. There are many drivers with vans that can transport groups of workers near the border region, which typically has very poor roads.

Taxi drivers can often earn more than trading company employees, so many aspiring drivers borrow money to enter the profession, said the trader. “Taxi drivers who collect a couple of regular passengers traveling long distances can earn a fixed salary of several hundred dollars per month,” he said.

Chinese tourists who visit North Korea have shared photos online of North Korean taxis and described the vibrant industry in the country.

North Korea’s public transport system has failed to meet growing demand arising from the growth of the country’s markets. Taxis have become the most accessible way for the country’s elite and business people to move around.

Taxis allow for fast, convenient transport of packages and other items, as well as long-distance travel between major cities. Furthermore, those travelling in taxis can avoid being stopped for travel permit inspections, as security officials are routinely bribed. Despite being somewhat expensive, they remain a preferred mode of transport and competition is fierce for vacancies at taxi companies.  

North Korean taxis typically charge about two dollars for base fare, and around 50 cents per kilometer thereafter. Long-distance taxis generally charge up to $90 for travel within a specific province, while cross-provincial travel can cost customers over 100 dollars.

“There are a lot of customers and the shortage of taxis means that competition is fierce and the cost of buying a vehicle has gone up,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province on August 7. “There are taxi drivers who have gone into debt to start driving and then gotten into an accident. They are placed in very difficult circumstances.”

“Taxi driving may be a popular profession, but only those who have the money or some kind of financial sponsor can do it,” a source in North Pyongan Province added, suggesting that becoming a driver is still a difficult achievement for most North Koreans.

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Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Many of her articles are featured in the Jangmadang section of the Daily NK website. She has been interviewed by the New York Times and LA Times, among others, and is a contributor on North Korea issues for TBS and KBS.