Command & Conquer – The Cars of North Korea

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

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