Home » Featured »Hooniverse Goes To... » Currently Reading:

Command & Conquer – The Cars of North Korea

Antti Kautonen January 3, 2012 Featured, Hooniverse Goes To... 30 Comments

Mercedes-Benz 190:s as far as the eye can see.

With the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a hot topic recently with the passing of Kim Jong-Il, it is a good time to look behind one of the world’s last Iron Curtains and cast an eye to their transport possibilities. It is a mixed bag; one does not really acquire but is dealt a car there.

Combine the layers of control and power with interesting marque choices, and the end result is something you just couldn’t make up if you tried.

The headline image shows a colony of Mercedes-Benz 190:s. All except one are burgundy, so there must be significance to that colour.  You can also see two white W114:s, a Toyota Lite-Ace and a Nissan Cedric following the pack. Kim Jong-Il famously was a Mercedes man to the core, often whisked away in S-Classes of various designations – but this is where the oft-repeated story gets weird.

W201 190:s were brought into the country, disassembled and copied to the last nut and bolt – then reproduced as the Sungri Kaengsaeng 88. Kaengsaeng stands for “Rebirth”; “Reproduction” isn’t quite as honest a denomination as the end result didn’t exactly correspond to Mercedes-Benz standards. The finished cars were fairly poorly made and spartan. Think of them as cover versions, played with instruments available to North Koreans.

Inspecting the photo, I’m not quite sure whether the pack of W201:s are real Mercedes or DPRK’d versions. The photo is taken in 2005, and even so the cars look factory fresh, compared to the somewhat weathered Cedric. They bear Mercedes stars, and from this distance the build quality is difficult to judge – but the steering wheel is on the left side, unlike in China Hong Kong. If they all came from the same factory in North Korea, the colour-matching could be explained. Then again, they could very well just be repainted old 190:s gathered from who knows where, for Potemkin purposes. Japanese Mercedes have the wheel on the left side, to make the Westernness stand out more.

Another story making the rounds is that North Korea ordered a supply of Volvo 144:s from Sweden, back in the day, and in the end didn’t pay for them. The validity of the story is difficult to judge, but the Volvos are still present. At least they should be sturdy enough for all conditions they might face; wintertime in DPRK must be comparable to the Nordic winter. Taxi cars are said to be 1970s-1980s Dacias, which are considerably flakier than a good old Volvo brick.

This is one of the most touching photos I’ve seen for a while, with a family tending to their green Volvo. Panel, bumper and chrome fit isn’t within factory standards any more, but the 144 is still in use. The front tire is completely bald. There are seat covers made from what has been available. I wonder if it’s the same car as in the above photo; with 1000 imported I don’t know how many are still being driven. Another photo shows two Volvos in the same shot, one more beaten than the other.

The last photo is a street scene.

Concrete blocks framing the street, the greyness is little lightened by the coloured flags hung up. The truck is difficult to identify, but most likely is of domestic production. Behind it is a jeep, possibly UAZ. Military presence can be felt, were it visible or not.

These days, the North Korean auto industry also produces/distributes a variety of Chinese-derived products, such as the Brilliance BS6, and small passenger cars based on the Fiat Siena, called the Hwiparam. In a way, I’d appreciate the somewhat shoddy Mercedes 190 venture more; what higher praise for the W201 than copying? It only shows how the small four-door Mercedes makes a convincing case for the best “world car” there is.

Photo credits: Veronika Pinter on all featured photos, except Volvo closeup (c) Roman Harak

  • dukeisduke

    Ah, what a lovely day for a drive to the gulag, er, recreation center.

  • P161911

    They also have "interesting" traffic signals and at least one MINI Cooper.[youtube 6YVIBawHaQY&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YVIBawHaQY&feature=related youtube]

    • dukeisduke

      Even the mad skillz of Kim Jong-un doesn't impress the competent, patriotic traffic warden.

  • mallthus

    You guys do know that the Chinese drive on the right, with steering wheels on the left (as in most of the non-British world), right?

    Only Hong Kong drives on the left (with wheels on the right). It used to be an easy trick for HK police to catch grey market PRC cars in HK because their wheels were on the left.

    Just saying…

    • julkinen

      Thanks for the heads-up, duly fixed.

    • Daniel Girald

      Talking about the Special Administrative Regions of China, it’s important to notice that Macau also follows the British traffic on the left, but it allows the registry of LHD cars while Hong Kong is enforces RHD more strictly.

  • Man, those North Koreans have it made!

  • Paul Rain

    Poorly built and spartan, sure, but a nasty knockoff of a 190 is still a pretty nice car, in the reliability and looks stakes anyhow. More reliable than the (presumably more faithful) South Korean licensed version of the W124? Probably not.

  • You are worthress, Kaengsaeng 88.

  • Manic_King

    A bit like Albania, then. In Albania local guy said to me that 95% of cars are Mercedes', visually it was definitely more than 70-80%. So 8 cars of 10 were MBs, ranging from oldies from sixties to modern models. Same local also said, that Albanians see MB as only proper car co., all the others are lower grade and not really desirable. Some cars had Norwegian, Dutch etc. plates. Place seems to be so lawless that people drive cars stolen in Western Europe with original foreign plates and no-one cares. I don't think any western insurance co. will let you take your car to Albania.
    If I can bore you with story of soviet times again, then I have following: 1980 Moscow Olympics, MB was sponsor(?). They gave type 123 wagons and sedans to organizers, these were religiously maintained by few chosen mechanics and looked brand new 10 years later. Even if ordering new parts from West Germany was difficult and expensive, no matter what it took these cars were taken care of. Don't know what happened to them later, they looked brand new in 1991.

  • Devin

    Going by the billboard, you can get knockoffs of a Brilliance, some van, a Hyundai Santa Fe and a Chevy Avalanche. It's an interesting assortment.
    <img src="http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5284/5302313261_3753c29f97.jpg&quot; width="500" height="354" alt="Advertising billboards for Peace Car in Pyongyang – North Korea">

    • Devin

      I also kind of wonder if the heavy blue is intentional for some sort of cultural reasons I don't understand, the billboard itself has faded, or blue ink is the only thing they had in abundance.

      • B72

        The various hues of the North Korean blues?

        • Devin

          I think that's Kim Jong-chul's upcoming album.

  • david42

    The lack of right-side mirrors makes me think these are locally-made 190 knock-offs. (At least here in the US, they all came with mirrors on both sides. You can't tell from the picture, but I'm pretty sure that the Kaengsaengs had an exposed pressed panel where the mirror ought to be, while a factory MB 190 would probably have a plastic panel covering the area.

    All this is based on a single photo from here: http://karakullake.blogspot.com/2010/08/north-kor
    (A hooniverse writer, no less!)

    • Ah yes, I was wondering where Maxichamp is during this discussion….Still stuck at the KC airport?

      • Are there a lot of hunters around KC? A lot of people were wearing camo gear at the airport.

        • mike england

          Gee, I wonder if that's my old Army Reserve unit going off to maneuvers, or off to defend freedom abroad?
          Or maybe a bunch of GIs coming back from Christmas leave? I saw a lot of young GIs today, in O'Hare, Charlotee NC and Dulles airports. I think they are on the way back to where they need to be now that the holidays are over.
          that said, there are a lot of deer-hunters in the KC area too. . .

    • I think the 190Es in the picture in the lead are real Mercs (and thus imported). First, notice the Merc badges on the trunk lids. The Kaengsaengs had their own badges. Second, my research revealed that only a very small handful of Kaengsaengs were made.

      Remember that in the U.S., Mercs are/were sold as luxury cars. Thus, most (if not all) of them had passenger side mirrors. But in other markets, the Mercs were also seen as utilitarian and downmarket models may very well come with only a driver side mirror.

      This is all conjecture. North Korea is a big black hole of mystery. But it's sure fun to speculate!

      • Manic_King

        Spot on. Even in Germany many basic MBs (190, 124 even) didn't have passenger side mirrors, I think it was optional extra, like many other things e.g. el. windows, AC, stereo etc.
        I would say in the beginning of nineties most MB cars in Germany didn't have pleather, AC and power windows, not even front. Most were manuals with weak motors at least it seemed so when combing through endless rows of used cars.

  • ofcourse that 144 is still in use, the B20 eats miles for lunch and kilometers for dinner.
    BTW those tires are not bald, it are slicks. How dare you say that the North Korean people have no money for new tires.

  • navelboxaren

    My father went to North Korea last year, he took some pictures so last week i was just thinking if i should write something about them and submnit it here. Though i'm not really sure if one site need two Finnish dudes writing about North Korean cars 😀

    Or i could write something about random farm machinery and industrial stuff and submit it to atomic toasters.

    As for the truck, my guess is a Sungri 61 or similar. Not my fathers picture, this turned up on google and it's from 1997 but funnily enough it's also a by a Finnish guy 😀

    <img src="http://lh5.ggpht.com/-67_7bWnytw8/STBSD6EVzgI/AAAAAAAAEls/e8WAnNRtZXQ/s750/sungri%252061%2520na%2520uitsnijding.jpg&quot; width="450">

    • julkinen

      The more the merrier. Also, the internet requires more walrus trucks.

      • We have no problems with Finns. Norwegians, well, that's another story.

  • Here is another North Korean made car.[youtube NmhTKDqrEDo http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmhTKDqrEDo youtube]

    • tonyola

      That's a license-built Fiat Palio called the Pyonghwa Hwiparam. It means that the Italian partners for Chrysler have been in cahoots with the North Koreans!

  • An entire PhD dissertation can be written on the cars of the funeral procession.[youtube FZwz9ajXlRg&feature=plcp&context=C3e9b9bfUDOEgsToPDskJmlBgofIy92p1qZzOSS7kT http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZwz9ajXlRg&feature=plcp&context=C3e9b9bfUDOEgsToPDskJmlBgofIy92p1qZzOSS7kT youtube]