Sun, Aug 10, 2014 - Page 5 News List

Crackdown on N Korea motorbike riders to save fuel

NY Times News Service, SEOUL

It is no secret that North Korea suffers chronic shortages of fuel, to the point that nighttime satellite photographs of the Korean Peninsula show a glittering south and a darkened north, beginning exactly at the 38th parallel that divides them.

Now the scarcity, made worse by an apparent drop in oil imports from China, has claimed a new set of victims: motorbike riders.

In the past week, two Seoul-based Web sites that carry reports from sources within North Korea said the authorities there had cracked down on private motorbike use to save fuel for military and government functionaries.

The new restrictions come just as motorbikes are emerging as the next stage in the evolution of vehicular transport in North Korea, much as they did in other parts of Asia decades ago — another reflection of North Korea’s stunted economy. Motorbike ownership is widely considered a status symbol in North Korea, where most people still travel on foot. Many motorbike owners supplement their income by using them as taxis.

Free North Korea Radio, a Web site run by North Korean defectors, quoted a Pyongyang resident who said: “Some people hire state security officials and military police to ride with them on their motorcycle to do their business. In the end, the crackdown is only fattening the pockets of those who enforce it.”

Daily NK, another Web site specializing in North Korean news, said the restrictions had banned private motorbike use except in the morning commute and at night, and that violators risked confiscation of their vehicles.

The restrictions could not be independently verified, but if confirmed, they appear to be another consequence of the North Korean government’s chilled friendship with China, its closest economic benefactor and ally.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is said to be exasperated with 31-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, because he has repeatedly defied China’s warnings to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

According to reports in the South Korea press earlier this year quoting official Chinese customs data, China did not export any crude oil to North Korea for at least the first three months of this year. However, diplomats have cautioned against reading too much into those statistics, because China sometimes keeps oil exports to North Korea out of its official trade data.

Still, competition for North Korea’s limited supply of fuel for private use is known to have intensified in recent years.

Even before the new restrictions, riders faced hazards peculiar to North Korea’s authoritarian system — long-distance travel permit requirements, decrepit roads, an unpredictable black market for gasoline and petty corruption among the police.

Lee Mi-yeon, a woman who defected from the North, said recently on Channel A in Seoul that the North Korean police often stopped people on motorbikes just to extort their gasoline.

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