North Korea’s Workers’ Party Turned 75: Nothing to Celebrate

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

Image credit: Anton Ivanov Photo -

On October 10, 2020, North Korea’s Workers’ Party (Korean Workers’ Party, KWP) celebrated its 75th anniversary, but should the world’s media and pundits do the same for a party and regime committing crimes against humanity? An ossified Stalinist bureaucracy, the KWP has survived the fall of communism by three decades. Kim Il-sung’s KWP established absolute control over a Korean populace that had known nothing but totalitarian political regimes for over half a millennium: 40 years of Japanese imperial occupation (1905–1945), preceded by 500 years under the feudal Chosun Dynasty.

Kim is the party, and the party is Kim, pursuant to North Korea’s monolithic ideology. Through indoctrination, regimentation, draconian control, surveillance, severe punishment of those suspected of disloyalty and their family members, and a chain of command and control that permeates all levels and walks of life in North Korea, the KWP has survived. Moreover, it has overseen hereditary transmission of power twice: from grandfather and party founder Kim Il-sung to son Kim Jong-il in July 1994; and from son Kim Jong-il to grandson Kim Jong-un in December 2011. Despite rumors about his poor health, Kim Jong-un has relied on the party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) as a power base, just like his father did. He has purged hundreds of senior officials branded disloyal by the OGD. Many of them were executed by anti-aircraft machine gun. Bodies were pulverized, turned into pink mist.

As HRNK author Robert Collins points out in his seminal 2019 report on the KWP OGD, this powerful agency acts as an advisory body to Kim and a filter between him and the rest of North Korea and the outside world. The KWP OGD advises on Supreme Leader guidance. It transmits his orders down the chain of command. It assesses compliance at the local level. It punishes perceived failure and it rewards absolute loyalty reflected in dutiful implementation of party guidance. Through the OGD, the party calls the shots. It decides who lives and who dies, who gets promoted and who gets demoted. There is no daylight between the party and the Supreme Leader. They are one.

Currently, the KWP has 3.5 million members and 200,000 candidate members, out of a total population of 25 million. In North Korea, two other parties exist on paper only, and the KWP has commanded absolute control of every aspect of life, politics, economy, and society in North Korea since October 10, 1945. Occasional international media reports on “tension” between the party and the military (Korean People’s Army, KPA) are mistaken. There can be no rift. Party guidance moves everything in North Korea. Anyone who counts in North Korea is a party member first. The military belongs to the party, and so do all other institutions, such as the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the Provincial People’s Assemblies (PPA), the 270,000-strong internal security agencies, and the Socialist Labor Youth League. The nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and diplomatic corps are no exception. North Korea’s donju, the entrepreneurial nouveau riche, must submit to the KWP and Kim. In the de jure absence of private property in North Korea, and with the Criminal Code banning entrepreneurial activity, party protection guarantees business success. The old, unwritten social contract in North Korea was: “Be absolutely loyal to the party and the leader, and you will receive everything you need through the Public Distribution System (PDS).” Distribution depends on one’s job. Job assignments depend on one’s songbun social-political classification, based on perceived loyalty. After the great famine of the 1990s and the PDS collapse, that unwritten social contract changed to: “Be absolutely loyal to the party and the leader, and we will allow you limited opportunity to look after yourselves and your families.” In North Korea, market actors are not revisionists or revolutionaries. To survive, they must still prove their unwavering loyalty to the party.

During the October 10 military parade in Kim Il-sung Square, media and pundits focused on the larger, apparently upgraded version of the Hwasong-15 ballistic missile, the 11-axle TEL carrying it as well as other upgrades to North Korea’s military gear. All critical issues. One detail was perhaps overlooked. In the background, a slogan read: “Dang-ui Gundae.” “The Party’s military.” One must remember the overwhelming role that the KWP has played for 75 years. Diplomats, negotiators, military and security experts, and human rights defenders alike must remember that the Supreme Leader and the party are one. That is the one and only decisionmaker in North Korea. The rest is a façade. The KWP is responsible for the deaths of nearly 5 million in the Korean War, 3 million in the great famine of the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands in North Korea’s political prison camps. On the KWP’s 75th anniversary, there was nothing to celebrate. Only bereavement, grief, and rage for the millions of lives lost.

The Need for the Truth: COVID-19-Free North Korea

By Kim Myong
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu

Kim Myong is a former senior North Korean government official who has agreed to share with HRNK analysis of the North Korean response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Since the official admission of an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in its neighboring country, China, North Korea has closed its borders, suspended flights in and out of the country, and restricted the cross-border movement of people and goods to prevent the disease from entering and spreading within its territory. Public health measures, such as disinfection and quarantine, have also been adopted nationwide. On several occasions, North Korean government-controlled media reported on the number of people in some parts of the country, including foreign residents, who had been quarantined or placed under “medical observation.” There was also sporadic reporting on how many of them had been freed from isolation, while consistently denying that any cases of COVID-19 infection or death had ever occurred.

North Korea’s healthcare system is fragile and precarious. The people of North Korea have long been affected by chronic malnutrition, poor health, and weak immunity. North Korea’s intimacy with China is the result of both geographic proximity and dependence on China in trade and tourism. Consequently, it would be no exaggeration to state that North Korea is far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than any other country in the world. Thus, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that there have been some COVID-19 infections and deaths in North Korea. Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to assume that North Korea has been more affected than any other country in the world. Experts continue to try to determine the rationale behind the North Korean government’s adamant denial of reality. Only North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who holds the key to everything happening in the country, would be able to provide the right explanation. However, based on my knowledge of North Korean society and personal life experience, I would like to provide some insights on this topic.

First, North Korea appears to be very concerned about its relations with China, and is thus reluctant to publish the real COVID-19 data. At this time, the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogue are deadlocked. The economic sanctions imposed by the international community on North Korea continue to be tightened. Kim Jong-un very likely believes that he has no one to depend on but Xi Jinping and China.

On the one hand, China, the point of origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been criticized in the free world for failing, at the early stages of the virus outbreak, to act quickly and to share the basic public health information that might have helped thousands of Chinese people avoid contamination. China has also been suspected of systematically underreporting its coronavirus numbers. On the other hand, China has launched a disinformation campaign to dispute the Chinese origin of the virus. If North Korea transparently publicized its coronavirus figures, this could add a fact check potentially undermining China’s denial and disinformation campaign.  The two countries share an 880-mile-long border, and admission of a massive COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea would substantially reinforce evidence that the pandemic originated in China. Kim Jong-un might have decided to conceal the real data to avoid embarrassing Xi.

Second, the North Korean government seems reluctant to publish the figures of COVID-19 cases to prevent ideological agitation among the population and keep its people from having any mistrust in the regime. In the mid-1990s, when the country was hard hit by famine due to severe food shortages, around three million North Koreans starved to death. However, the government never released this information inside or outside the country. At that time, I lived in Pyongyang and suffered from food shortages like many other people. Via word of mouth and rumors, I learned that inhabitants of other provinces were starving, but I could never imagine that such a huge number of people had died. Pressed hard by the widespread famine, then North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il agreed to receive food assistance from the international community under the pretext of recurrent natural disasters – e.g. drought and flooding. Until then, he had even been reluctant to disclose to the outside world information on actual human and economic losses caused by real natural disasters, and had categorically rejected any proposal by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive international assistance.

Following Kim Jong-il’s admission that a humanitarian emergency was unfolding, a taskforce was immediately established in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive food and fertilizer as foreign aid, under humanitarian assistance programs of the United Nations and other international organizations. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il never informed the taskforce on the number of people who had died of hunger. At weekly meetings organized on Saturdays to brainwash the population, the regime called on people to consume as little food as possible to mitigate food shortages and to help farmers in a variety of ways.  The North Korean people were asked to provide physical support to farmers, by supplying labor to increase food production, and mental support, through hiding the truth about mass starvation. Kim Jong-il was probably afraid of the people who, once informed on the real facts, would no longer trust his version of socialism and begin resisting the Kim Family Regime, which had ruled the country for decades. Instead, his propaganda machine invented a so-called revolutionary anecdote that he was eating porridge and taking a nap to alleviate the pain of the food shortages, just like the overwhelming majority of the North Korean people. However, the anecdote had it that, instead of napping in his bedroom, Kim Jong-il would take a snooze in the car, on his way to delivering on-the-spot guidance. He used this anecdote as propaganda to brainwash the people, hide his super luxurious lifestyle, and project a glorified version of a magnanimous self. As an old Korean proverb puts it, Kim Jong-il was trying to “cover the sky with the palm of his hand,” engaging in a futile attempt to distort and hide the obvious, overwhelming, and harsh truth. The North Korean people were not deceived, and eventually understood that truth.

Kim Jong-un would never want to fall short of the high standards of deception established by his father. As we have seen in North Korea’s handling of COVID-19, just like his father, Kim Jong-un is keen on deceiving his own people. To Kim Jong-un, letting hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of North Koreans die of the disease like worthless slaves would not be an issue.  To him, watching so many people die would be less painful than a finger prick spilling one droplet of his own blood. So, instead of focusing on testing and treating people to save their lives, he is only concerned with containing the spread of the virus. Any statistical data on COVID-19 infection cases and deaths seems to be classified as “top secret” in North Korea, and strict censorship would be applied to the information related to the disease to prevent the truth from leaking at home and abroad.

On March 17, Kim Jong-un unexpectedly launched a project to build the “Pyongyang General Hospital” and appeared at the groundbreaking ceremony. Since then, North Korean media has been ramping up propaganda, praising his leadership and the superiority of the socialist health system. However, no one truly believes that propaganda anymore. All of this propaganda and glorification of the leader is paradoxically an indication that Kim Jong-un has something to hide, and that he is fearful of the wavering hearts and minds of the population. Just like his father, Kim Jong-il, who was reluctant to disclose statistics about the unfortunate North Korean population that had to starve due to lack of access to cheap and basic food in the 1990s, Kim Jong-un is using all the means at his disposal to hide the truth about the coronavirus spread in North Korea. He is also afraid of the shock waves that may reverberate through North Korean society if statistical data were released on the loss of precious life because of lack of proper testing and treatment. He fears the negative impact of such information on North Korean society and its potential to alienate the population from the regime.

Last, but not least, it appears that Kim Jong-un, by hiding the facts, wants to find an excuse for continuing military provocations, such as a series of missile tests performed in March. Before the coronavirus crisis broke out, Kim Jong-un was envisioning a number of steps that could be taken without crossing a redline and upsetting President Donald Trump, who seemingly was less interested in talking with him this year. While the world is fighting the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea's missile testing surely upsets us all.

The world would have different perceptions of a North Korea ravaged by coronavirus and a North Korea completely untouched by the pandemic. Of course, few will believe the absurd lies that there have been no coronavirus infections or fatalities in the country. Kim Jong-un seems to be mistakenly induced to think that his military actions would be less condemned or even excused if the truth is concealed. On the one hand, North Korea is likely to continue similar low-intensity and carefully controlled military provocations in the weeks and months to come. On the other hand, it will double down on diplomatic efforts at the UN to have sanctions against the country lifted, in particular by manipulating China and Russia.

In conclusion, it is very likely that the number of coronavirus cases and fatalities in North Korea exceeds imagination. The international community should put strong pressure on the North Korean government to share transparent information. The North Korean government should be pressed hard to request and accept much needed assistance without delay to save the lives of North Koreans already affected by malnutrition and weakened immunity, as they are most likely to die from COVID-19. If we fail in the pursuit of truth, the coronavirus pandemic will trigger a humanitarian crisis on par with the great famine of the 1990s.


By Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Today, Friday, June 14, 2019, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC) together lay a wreath at the Victims of Communism 12th Annual Roll Call of Nations Wreath-Laying Ceremony at the Victims of Communism Memorial located on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and New Jersey Avenue in Northwest Washington, DC. HRNK and NKFC join hands in remembrance of the countless victims of communism in North Korea since 1948, the year the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was founded thanks to a bipartisan effort in Congress that lead to PL 103-199, which was “signed into law by President Bill Clinton on December 17, 1993.”[1]After years of hard work, President George W. Bush dedicated the Victims of Communism Memorial on June 12, 2007.[2]

NKFC & HRNK wreath before the wreath-laying ceremony.

During the dedication, President George W. Bush spoke to the underlying reason behind the memorial that still resonates today: “We dedicate this memorial because we have an obligation to those who died, to acknowledge their lives and honor their memory.”[3]There are an estimated 100 million victims of communism around the world. In North Korea, at times one hears about the improved standard of living in Pyongyang and greater access to markets all around the country. Nevertheless, thanks to the 2014 United Nations Report of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the world now knows that crimes against humanity have been thoroughly documented in North Korea. On the surface, these are seemingly contradictory reports.

How do we define who a victim is in North Korea? The Oxford dictionary defines a victim as “a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.”[4]Today in North Korea, every citizen is indiscriminately a victim, from the lowest “hostile” classes to the highest, privileged “loyal” classes of songbun. The Kim regime is systematically harming, injuring, and killing anybody it arbitrarily deems to be a threat. Even the privileged in North Korea face the fear of execution at the hands of the Kim regime.

While fully acknowledging the rise of markets and cell phones in North Korea, which are undoubtedly positive developments the citizens of North Korea still face widespread malnutrition, political oppression, and fearpolitik. According to the World Food Programme, “an estimated 11 million people – more than 40 percent of the population – are undernourished.”[5]Malnutrition could easily be addressed by the Kim regime, which consciously chooses to keep its weapons rather than properly feed 11 million citizens. Malnutrition is even more acute in North Korea's political prison camps. There are more than 30 kwan-li-so (political prison camps) and kyo-hwa-so (reeducation through forced labor camps) that we know. Between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners are held at the political prison camps. Many others are imprisoned in reeducation through forced labor camps. Even at the top of North Korean society, fear controls the privileged. High-level officials have been made to watch their peers be executed by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine guns to instill fear and to keep the elites in line. These atrocities are now well documented and continue to incite outrage. Corroboration of instances such as these have been made possible thanks to North Korean escapee testimony and satellite imagery, revealing the horrors committed by the Kim regime.

Compared to ten years ago, the world is now more aware of the suffering of the victims of communism, including the North Korean people. "Many people have been liberated from communism" states HRNK Co-Vice-Chair and NKFC Chairman Suzanne Scholte, "but North Koreans still suffer under this brutal ideology. Today, we not only remember the millions of North Koreans who have died at the hands of Kim Il Song, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un, but we remind the world that North Koreans are still suffering."

HRNK, NKFC, and countless other organizations and individuals understand that it would be detrimental to forget history and are passionate about raising awareness of the reality in North Korea. However, many Americans today are failing to remember or notice the suffering that is perpetrated at the hands of communist regimes around the world, including the crimes of the Kim regime. The Victims of Communism 2018 annual report found that “1 in 4 Americans Have Received No Education About Communism” and “52% of millennials indicated that they would prefer to live in a socialist (46%) or communist (6%) country [rather] than a capitalist (40%) one.”[6]

 HRNK & NKFC wreath-laying ceremony at the Victims of Communism Memorial. 

HRNK & NKFC staff and interns pause for a moment of silence for the North Korean people after the laying of the wreath at the Victims of Communism Memorial. 

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan reflected that “communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written.”[7] Today in 2019, HRNK and NKFC are still working towards righting the wrongs of communism's legacy. HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu, a naturalized American born and raised in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist Romania, worries "that Millennials do not fully appreciate the gravity of the abominable oppression, repression, and deprivation communism caused. I experienced that up close and personal until age 19. It is truly heartening to see my younger colleagues lay a wreath on behalf of HRNK today, in memory of the victims of this ideology that ultimately gave the world nothing but desperation, destruction, and genocide." Younger generations have an obligation, just as generations had before them, to those who died at the hands of communism to ensure that the errors and crimes of the past are never, ever repeated. We must “acknowledge their lives and honor their memory.”[8]''

HRNK legal research intern Brian Wild, HRNK research intern Eliza Klingler, HRNK legal research intern Kiersten Reinhold, HRNK director of programs and editor Rosa Park, NKFC member Greg Forman, HRNK research intern Eunsaem Shin, and NKFC/DFF intern Johnny Park stand with the HRNK & NKFC wreath before the Victims of Communism Memorial. 
Photos by Michele Helen Reyes

[1]Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, "History of the Memorial,"

[2]Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, "The Dedication,"

[3]George W. Bush, White House Archives,

[4]Lexico Powered by Oxford, "Victim,"

[5]World Food Programme, “WFP DPR Korea Country Brief April 2019,”

[6]Victims of Communism and Yougov, "Third Annual Report On U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism,”

[7]BBC,“Ronald Reagan: In his own words,”

[8]George W. Bush, White House Archives,

North Korea’s Mobile Telecommunications and Private Transportation Services in the Kim Jong-un Era

By Yonho Kim


Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is a former Senior Researcher of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the former editor of the USKI Washington Review, a bi-weekly Korean report on current foreign policy developments in Washington with regards to the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Kim also manages projects on the North Korean political economy and is the author of “Cell Phones in North Korea: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?

Prior to joining USKI, he was a Senior Reporter for Voice of America’s Korean Service, where he covered the North Korean economy, North Korea’s illicit activities, and economic sanctions against North Korea. From 2003 to 2008, Mr. Kim was a broadcaster for Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service, focusing on developments in and around North Korea and US-ROK alliance issues. From 2001 to 2003, he was the Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Program on Korea in Transition, where he conducted in-depth research on South Korean domestic politics.

Mr. Kim holds a B.A. and M.A. in International Relations from Seoul National University, and an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.




1. Introduction of Mobile Telecommunications Services
2. Increased Number of Subscribers
3. Changes in the Market

1. The Advent and Development of Servi-Cha
2. Operating Conditions of Servi-Cha in North Korea
3. Checkpoints and Corruption

1. Owners and Drivers of Servi-Cha
A. Gas Trade
B. Brokers and Forwarders
C. Servi-Cha Owners and Drivers’Network
D. Crackdowns at Checkpoints

2. Servi-Cha Users
A. Freight Charge Comparisons and Market Prices
B. Fixing Prices
C. Operation Information

3. Changes in the Market
A. Specialization in the Distribution Stage: ‘Sedentary Business’
B. Long-distance Money Transfers
C. Expansion of Trade Volume
D. Prolonged Business Relations – Credibility



Since Kim Jong-un came to power in late 2011, North Korea’s unofficial markets have been experiencing rapid changes to the extent that they may be called ‘the logistics revolution.’ Along with the expansion of state-run mobile telecommunications and spontaneously formed private transportation services, unprecedented market activities are emerging. North Korea’s mobile telecommunications service provider is now estimated at more than 4 million subscribers, close to 20% of its entire population, facilitating timely communication of market trend information. This allowed the merchants to determine quantities and prices of products to trade as well as shipping and delivery methods over the phone. The merchants can no longer compete in the markets without a cell phone. In addition, Kim Jong-un’s tolerance of private enterprises within North Korea, and the creation of de facto public-private collaborative operations have helped foster the private transportation services enterprise, also known as “servi-cha.”[1] Railways were long North Korea’s principal mode of transportation. However, beset by economic difficulties and poor electricity supply, the system became unreliable, leaving a fleet of vehicles to rise as the primary mode of commercial transportation and enabling the proliferation of these privately run servi-cha. Marketization under the Kim Jong-un era has even made possible North Korean-style parcel delivery services. Gradually disappearing “door-to-door” merchants who used to travel long distance to make profitable trade, coupled with the ability to operate a chain supply through a phone call, connecting traders, drivers, and even checkpoints, has opened up a new business era of “stay-at-home” merchants.

As such, the combination of mobile telecommunications and private transportation services has created a synergy effect, complementing one another to greatly increase the efficiency of unofficial markets in North Korea. However, there is very little research done on this combination phenomenon. In studying North Korean marketization, most researchers often fail to see the big picture by separating mobile telecommunications and private transport services as individual subjects. Even if there is a mention of ‘the logistics revolution,’ which is a result of the combination phenomenon, there is no further analysis other than relating it back to marketization.[2] Considering North Korea’s reality of great increase in mobility of people and products off the regime’s radar, and rapid expansion of market information dissemination through mobile telecommunications, the aforementioned “combination” is a core element in determining the changing direction of North Korean marketization.

This research intends to explore how cell phones are being utilized in communicating and exchanging information between actors associated with private transport services (servi-cha), and the resulting ramifications on markets. First, I assessed the cell phone communication method between the main actors, such as the owner of servi-cha, driver, client (merchant), broker, fuel oil trader, and checkpoint. Then, I examined the changing content and quality of private transportation services through the new communication method, and by extension, the trade method, scale, and how credibility plays into changing the relationship between the main actors of North Korea’s unofficial markets.

This report is primarily based on interviews conducted between September 2016 andFebruary 2018 with 19 North Korean defectors who are now resettled in South Korea. The interviewees all have experience as merchants using both cell phones and private transportation services after Kim Jong-un came to power. Two of the defectors also have experience operating servi-cha. The defectors, with age distribution between their 20s and 50s, are from the capital city of Pyongyang, Hyesan, Samjiyon, and Baekam (Ryanggang Province), Hamhung (South Hamgyong Province), Chongjin (North Hamgyong Province), and Wonsan (Gangwon Province).[3] The interviewees have relatively recently defected from North Korea, between 2012 and 2016. Detailed information on the defectors is not revealed to protect their identities and the safety of their remaining family members in North Korea. To get updated information, the author interviewed some defectors who currently maintain contacts in North Korea.


1. Introduction of Mobile Telecommunications Services

North Korea’s commercial mobile telecommunications services began in November 2002, introduced by Thailand’s Loxley Pacific in Pyongyang and the Rajin-Sonbong (now referred to as Rason) Special Economic Zone (SEZ).North-East Asia Telephone and Telecommunications Co., Ltd. (NEAT&T), a joint venture between Loxley Pacific and North Korea Post andTelecommunications Corporation, provided 2G GSM service with the acquisition of a 30-year business license. NEAT&T expanded the coverage area to Nampo, Kaesong, provincial capitals, and major highways. By the end of 2003, the number of subscribers was estimated to have reached around 20,000.[4] However, in April 2004, following a massive explosion at Yongchon Station in North Pyongan Province, North Korea shut down mobile telecommunications services. Along with the rumor that it was a bomb targeting Kim Jong-il, remotely controlled by a wireless handset, all cell phones were banned across the country and North Korea began confiscating devices.

However, in December 2008, four years after the incident, North Korea lifted the ban on cell phones and resumed services. This time, they changed their business partner to the Egyptian telecommunication firm Orascom, established CHEO, and began servicing 3G W-CDMA under the name Koryolink. Owning 75% of shareholding, Orascom was granted a 25-year business license and secured a 4-year franchise. North Korean leadership, at the time, was politically desperate for mobile telecommunication services and needed to attract extensive foreign investment. In order to demonstrate that North Korea had reached its goal of becoming a “Strong and Prosperous Nation”by the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung on April 15, 2012, they needed such economic achievements. In this sense, it was no coincidence that the phone number early Koryolink subscribers received included the digits 1912, inspired by the birth year of Kim Il-sung.[5]

By the end of the third quarter of 2011, three years after its service launching, Koryolink had established 453 base stations. As such, Koryolink expanded its network coverage including the capital Pyongyang, 15 major cities, 86 smaller cities, 22 major roads, and highways. Though this only covers 14% of North Korea’s territory, excluding the sparsely populated mountains and uplands covering most of North Korea’s land area, the network covers 94% of the entire population.[6] According to defectors, at the beginning stage of the mobile telecommunication service, calls were only stable in Pyongyang and surrounding major cities. Calls were often disrupted in Sinuiju, Hyesan, Musan, Hoeryeong, and Chungjin due to a weak network connection.[7] However, as service expanded, call quality is said to have greatly improved.

2. Increased Number of Subscribers

At the time when Koryolink launched their 3G service, it was widely expected that the service would only be provided to a few privileged individuals. However, the Koryolink network rapidly expanded its number of subscribers in a short period of time. When the service was first launched in late 2008, the number of subscribers stood at about 2,000. However, that number reached one million in February 2012, three years after Koryolink service launching. In May 2013, 15 months after reaching one million, the subscriber count yet again presented remarkable growth totaling around two million.[8] Thereafter, after a phase of stagnant growth, the number hit three million in November 2015 after another two years and six months.[9] Some institutions speculate that the number of subscribers reached 3.7 million in late 2016[10], but as Orascom has been reporting the number of its new subscribers intermittently, the exact count is difficult to verify.

  *2011.9, **2013.5, ****2015.11

North Korea has transitioned from a monopoly mobile telecommunication service market dominated by Koryolink to an oligopoly market structure. Since the early 2010s, with Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in North Korea as the sole investor, North Korea began to build a second mobile telecommunication network called ‘Gangseong Net.’ It is known to have started providing service to North Koreans in October 2013 under the name Byol.[11] It is estimated that Byol had obtained up to one million subscribers by early 2016.[12] The estimation made by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of 4.7 million cell phones in use in North Korea in August 2017 appears to be combining the number of subscribers of both Koryolink and Byol.[13]

In terms of service content, there is not much difference between Byol and Koryolink. However, due to its lower price, Byol has attracted many customers. For instance, the basic plan with 200 free minutes per month is the same as Koryolink. The difference is that after the free minutes, Koryolink requires a purchase of an expensive foreign currency prepaid card while Byol charges an additional 30 cents per minute, making it a more affordable option.[14] Furthermore, along with the differing communication charges, North Korea is deliberately downgrading the call quality of Koryolink, shifting its subscribers to ‘Gangseong Net.’[15]

3. Changes in the Market

In the early years of Koryolink service, due to the limited cell phone supply and eligibility for subscription, the main customers were high-ranking officials representing the Party, government, military, and merchants who were able to bribe them. However, as the North Korean government relaxed some regulations, unless a specific problem was found during a background check, anyone with financial means could use cell phones. As such, the use of cell phones among the merchants proliferated and this made cell phones not only a symbol of financial and business prowess, but also a means of survival.

Though the North Korean government had blocked the Internet and international calls, and even transmission of data by the end of 2011, the merchants had no problem checking jangmadang prices, exchange rates, and other such market information in real time. Already in the 1990s, during the North Korean famine, among cross-border traders who were using illegal Chinese cell phones to communicate, there was a saying that “As long as there is a cell phone, you can survive.” The situation was such that the determining factor of business success or failure was market information. In such circumstances, the construction of a North Korean wireless network signifies an opening of nationwide business opportunity for merchants.

Wholesale and retail merchants of the jangmadang are now able to investigate and confirm market trends across the state to promptly respond to changes. Negotiations now conveniently take place over a phone instead of meeting at the market, also allowing decisions over price, quantity, shipping, and delivery methods to be made over the phone. On this account, cell phones have become an essential tool for merchants, making it impossible to survive in the jangmadang without a phone. According to defectors, long gone is the term ‘runner’ merchant, long distance trader who would carry his goods to the market, as now only with a couple of phone numbers of wholesale and retail sellers, and truck or bus drivers, one can operate a business as a ‘stay-at-home’ merchant. As such, with the rapid transmission of market information and improvement of distribution speed and range through cell phones, commodity prices have been stabilized, and trade methods taking advantage from price differences between regions are no longer feasible.[16]


1. The Advent and Development of Servi-Cha

North Korea’s transportation system was traditionally centered on the railways. However, with the economic crisis in the 1990s, the railway system was no longer able to function due to the endemic energy crisis and the deterioration of locomotives and railroad tracks. As the nation’s transportation service dwindled, North Koreans who were struggling to overcome the economic crisis created markets as a survival tactic, which in turn increased the demand for passenger and merchandise movement. As a result, a private road transportation system began to develop and business vehicles called ‘servi-cha’ were introduced.

As a matter of fact, ‘pay-to-operate’ vehicles were available even before the economic crisis. Vehicles owned by the military, factories, and enterprises illegally transported passengers and accepted fares. These ‘commercial’ vehicles began to “corporatize” in the mid-1990s during the economic crisis. Enterprises, military and state institutions went on to conduct business with state owned vehicles and imported used vehicles from China or Japan.[17] Especially with the expansion of the smuggling between North Korea and China and the resulting increase in the demand for transportation, private citizens began to pay bribes to state institutions in order to participate in the servi-cha business.[18] Private citizens with capital—Korean Japanese, overseas Chinese, merchants, and those whose family members defected and resettled in South Korea, sending money back home—smuggled in used vehicles from China or Japan. Now, some enterprises and military bases operate servi-cha by renting out their vehicles to private citizens for a fee.

The robust growth of servi-cha expanded the variety of transportation methods from freight trucks and military trucks to buses, vans, motorcycles, and taxis,[19] satisfying the various demands of the market by operating both short and long distances. Such changes also gained momentum under Kim Jong-un’s regime apparent leniency toward markets. Under Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, the regime went back and forth between tolerance and regulation of markets. However, when Kim Jong-un ascended to power, he went beyond tacit approval, devising policy aimed to actively utilize markets.[20] Even in the private transportation service markets, there had been repeated broad scale crackdowns on vehicles used for profit in the past.[21] However, according to defectors, at least since 2014, there have been almost no broad-scale crackdowns. There is even a concern of ‘oversupply’ among the vehicle owners with the revitalized private transportation services.[22] On this account, despite the rising gas prices, servi-cha are experiencing difficulty in raising freight rates.[23]

2. Operating Conditions of Servi-Cha in North Korea

In order to operate servi-cha, people must register their cars under factories, enterprises, military bases, or other such state institutions because private ownership of vehicles is banned in North Korea. State institutions allow the owners of the vehicle to operate servi-cha in exchange for vehicle registration fees and a cut from the monthly profits obtained through operating servi-cha. Through this symbiotic relationship, the officials secure operational funds of state institutions, accumulate private wealth, and allow the owners to operate servi-cha ‘legally.’

Once the vehicle is registered, the Ministry of People’s Security General Bureau of Transportation, which oversees the Department of Motor Vehicle, issues a permit for long-distance operation. The drivers must present this permit at checkpoints. North Koreans need to carry a travel permit issued by their provincial office of the Ministry of People’s Security to go outside their residential district. However, as servi-cha is classified as a business vehicle, the drivers and users of servi-cha are able to travel without the permit. The license plate indicates the institution it is registered with and therefore vehicles registered with such institutions as the Ministry of State Security (formerly known as the State Security Department), an institution of tremendous authority, are excluded from inspection and enforcement, but incur higher servi-cha operational costs. On the other hand, operating servi-cha with license plates from food industries, People’s Committees, and organizations in the agricultural sector is relatively cheap.[24] Other than North Korean won, US dollars and Chinese yuan are also used to pay for servi-cha.

Although the expansion of private transportation services in North Korea has caused dramatic increases in gas demand, the limited public distribution system failed to satisfy that demand. Satellite images taken in 2016 identified 82 official gas stations, and it is speculated that the number has increased steadily since then. The gas stations are mainly concentrated in downtown Pyongyang and its suburbs, and scattered throughout provincial capitals and main highways.[25]Aside from this, the illegal fuel oil distribution system operated by individuals is dispersed throughout the nation, and the drivers of servi-cha are primarily using this system.

“On the way from Pyongyang to Sinuiju, when you go to the Gwaksan area of North Pyongan Province, you can see many fuel oil traders along the road where servi-cha frequently comes by. The traders are waiting for servi-cha to buy their gas. They bring 50L plastic barrels filled with gas from home.” (A defector from Pyongyang who operated servi-cha prior to defecting in 2015)

The fuel oil traders either smuggle fuel oil from China and Russia, or buy the illegal outflow of fuel oil from military bases, oil reservoirs, factories, enterprises etc.[26] The military bases appropriate fuel oil by fabricating training time, and enterprises sell fuel oil received from the state to the market and buy back from the market when needed. Such illegal circulation of fuel oil is rampant throughout the country, and because of deeply rooted corruption, it is very difficult to completely eradicate these illegal practices.

3. Checkpoints and Corruption

North Korea has governed vehicle movements through checkpoints under the authority of either the Ministry of People’s Security or the Ministry of State Security. They check the validity of the permit, possession of a driver’s license, whether the vehicle is registered, and crack down on transportation of drugs and contraband. The checkpoints are established on provincial, city, and county boundaries and border areas. Temporary checkpoints are sometimes established at random.

A ‘special law enforcement unit’ of the Ministry of People’s Security sets up checkpoints at random locations at any given time and rotates guards once an hour. They us a barrier to block the road so that illegal vehicles cannot run away. (A defector from Hyesan of Ryanggang Province who previously operated servi-cha prior to defecting in 2014)

Despite abiding by all regulations, it is impossible for servi-cha to pass through the checkpoints without offering bribes. If the vehicle gets pulled over, transporting passengers and goods on time is impossible; therefore, the owners and drivers of servi-cha have no choice but to ‘cooperate’ with the checkpoint guards and officials. They periodically bribe the guards and officials according to service frequency and comply with requests for additional bribes.

There is no one who can go through the checkpoints without getting caught for any reasons. For example, the drivers can be pulled over if they exceed the maximum authorized mass (number of passengers allowed in a car), or having a cargo on a bus when that’s illegal. So, you have to fulfill the guards’ demands. They may ask for something big such as cigarettes, wedding ‘sang gam’ (food and fruits that go on the big table at the wedding), or 2 tons of cement. Once you bribe them, they watch your back for a year. (A defector from Pyongyang who previously operated servi-cha prior to defecting in 2015)

In North Korea, people call the bribe ‘homework.’ If the drivers of servi-cha ‘don’t do the homework,’ you are considered to have ‘low morals’ at checkpoints. The guards at checkpoints then begin ‘staying and finishing homework’ (extorting cargo). On the other hand, if the drivers offer a proper bribe to the guards, they can easily be given a pass even if caught red-handed running illegal activities. Because the collusion between servi-cha and checkpoints is deeply rooted, a crackdown on servi-cha at national level is not likely to be effective. In the case of extensive rigid enforcement of regulations, private transportation services may be paralyzed, and also face strong opposition from low- and mid-ranking officials who have been receiving bribes.


1. Owners and Drivers of Servi-Cha

A. Gas Trade

With the dispersion of illegal fuel oil traders throughout the nation and the wide provision of cell phones, there has been a change in servi-cha owners and drivers’ gas purchasing behavior. In the past, the drivers often carried barrels of gas needed for the entire round-trip long-distance journey in the vehicle. Therefore, there was the inconvenience of not being able to maximize total cargo load. After cell phones came into wide use, vehicle owners were able to call fuel oil traders near the point of departure, travel stops, and destination to easily compare gas prices. Operators of servi-cha decide whether to load gas onto the car for the journey or purchase gas en route from the fuel oil traders after comparing the prices.[27] Of no less importance than the price of gas is how much gas the fuel oil traders have in their current possession. A long-distance journey requires a large amount of gas, and it is of great importance that the drivers secure a fuel oil trader with enough gas in stock for the trip, and this can now be done efficiently by using cell phones.

State institutions’ smuggling of gas has also become less risky and more convenient.

When there were no cell phones, the vehicle carrying stolen gas from military bases had to come to my house. Then, using cell phones, we were able to meet at a secluded location, avoiding security officials and State Security watchers (A defector from South Hamgyong Province and previously a fuel oil trader prior to defecting in 2014)

According to the defector, before cell phones came into wide use, military vehicles delivered the gas barrels to private houses at dawn, and they always had to fear getting caught by the surveillance security officials. Even in the case of having gas delivered to a place other than a private home, there was also a chance of being caught by the security officials while waiting for the delivery. Thereafter, as cell phone calls were enabled, the time and place to meet could instantly be determined, and changes made just as easily as needed. It was said that the exchanges usually took place in the woods or fields where surveillance could not reach them. The defector also testified that cell phones are also helpful in delivering gas to a place without a specific address. The operator has to say that a driver out of gas had called him for gas delivery out on the road.

B. Brokers and Forwarders

After the distribution of cell phones, ‘gugahn’ (brokers) who connect the shippers and servi-cha for a handling charge have been active throughout all the regions.

Before departing from Pyongyang, I would contact the brokers in Wonsan to connect me to some shippers who have goods to be sent to Pyongyang so as not to return to Pyongyang empty-handed. Then when the brokers send me a few cell phone numbers of the shippers, I would call them to arrange the business. After arrival in Wonsan, I would meet with the shippers at a restaurant to review what kind of cargo they are sending, whether they are controlled goods or not, bargain the freight charge, and also decide who would be responsible for paying for the driver’s meals. (A defector from Pyongyang who previously operated servi-cha, prior to defecting in 2016)

When a shipper approaches the owner of servi-cha directly, the owner of servi-cha may also contact brokers to run a background check to verify whether the shipper is trustworthy or not. With regular shippers, the owners of servi-cha often arrange cargo pickups through a direct phone call, and if a third party delivers the cargo, the servi-cha owners call the shippers to double check the content of the cargo before departure. On the other hand, a broker is contacted if the shipper is in need of a servi-cha immediately. The handling charge is paid by either the shipper or the servi-cha owner, but usually by the one who contacted the broker first. A broker can make easy profit once a good network of shippers and servi-cha owners is secured. However, as the broker is responsible for any damages, he also bears risks if something goes amiss in the introduction of the two parties.

Brokers form a group by districts to exchange information. In each area, there is a ‘gugahnjang’ or a commander of the brokers who manage the group. Any broker who swindles is ‘dealt with’ by the commander and expelled from the market. According to defectors, after the wide circulation of cell phones, verification of information has become so speedy and easy that it has become very difficult for brokers to cheat. Brokers may also create a network with those from other districts to connect servi-cha owners and shippers. For example, let’s say there is a servi-cha departing from Pyongyang to Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, after being introduced to a shipper by a local broker. The servi-cha owner or driver would contact the Pyongyang broker to communicate with the Hamhung broker to seek shippers so that he may load his vehicle with cargo when returning from Hamhung. Then, the Pyongyang broker would contact a Hamhung broker from his network to ask for a shipper who has cargo for this servi-cha. The Hamhung broker would then look for shippers in search of a servi-cha using his cell phone, and connect them to the owner or the driver of the servi-cha. Regardless of whether they have actually met in person, the Pyongyang broker and the Hamhung broker can maintain their business relationship using cell phones. The brokers also share information regarding where to send what type of cargo to maximize profits.

Those who are not able to secure a network of shippers and servi-cha, and go around train stations, bus terminals, jangmadang, and inns looking for servi-cha passengers are called ‘forwarders.’ Their targets are often out-of-town citizens from other regions who are not familiar with local servi-cha. The forwarders connect the out-of-town citizens to a servi-cha that goes to their destination by asking their contacts using a cell phone. They then gain handling or facilitation fees from the servi-cha owners or drivers.

C. Servi-Cha Owners and Drivers’ Network

Cell phones are also playing an important role in forming and invigorating a cooperative network of owners and drivers. Although social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are banned in North Korea where the Internet is blocked, enough information exchange is actively taking place using cell phones among drivers and owners of servi-cha. For instance, if a servi-cha breaks down or is at a repair shop, but the owner receives a call from a broker or shipper, he then directs the call to another servi-cha driver or owner he is regularly in contact with. In addition, the cooperative networks created using cell phones also benefit when it comes to repairing vehicles and supplying spare parts. If an unexpected event occurs at checkpoints, phone calls are made to notify the servi-cha owners and drivers who are operating along the same route. In the case that servi-cha is caught by security officials or checkpoint guards, someone from the network may come to the rescue, and this, too, is quickly done through cell phone communication.

D. Crackdowns at Checkpoints

If a problem occurs at checkpoints while operating servi-cha, then offering a bribe is the fastest way to resolve the problem. If a guard at a checkpoint asks for more ‘generosity’ or for dolsang (a Korean traditional special feast table laid in celebration of a baby’s first birthday), it is wiser to just bribe more and be let go in peace even if it means suffering a financial loss. The refusal to comply would first disturb the delivery schedule, possibly result in confiscation of the cargo, and create future tension and conflict by aggravating the relationship with the checkpoint guards.

However, when illegal cargo is discovered or an order to rigidly enforce regulations is passed down from the top, it may become complicated to use just a bribe as a means to reach a deal. In such cases, guards with whom the operators have had a long relationship and cultivated through bribes over many years may change their attitude. The worst-case scenario would be to have cargo confiscated, and under such circumstances, the servi-cha owner or driver immediately contacts the shipper to explain the situation. Then, the shipper calls the recipient of the delivery to discuss a countermeasure. If the owner of the servi-cha has connections with high-level officials of the Ministry of People’s Security, then he can contact them directly to describe the circumstances, which would then lead to the high-level official calling a mid-level official to order the immediate release of the servi-cha stopped at the checkpoint. Ministry of State Security checkpoints are even more difficult to pass. One defector disclosed that once he passed through the checkpoint by calling a broker to find out the name of a high-level official of the Ministry of State Security in order to lie to the guard that he was the nephew of that official.

2. Servi-Cha Users

A. Freight Charge Comparisons and Market Prices

For the users of servi-cha, the greatest benefit from the widespread use of cell phones is the ability to compare freight charges in real time to select the best-suited servi-cha.

Back in the day, you had to go in person one by one to check the freight charges, but now, you can check the prices using just a cell phone. The introduction of cell phones has simplified the process in many ways. (A defector from Ryanggang Province who previously used servi-cha prior to defecting in 2014)

The users of servi-cha make a direct phone call to the owners, drivers, or brokers to ask for such details as departure time and date, freight charges or fares, vehicle types (in the case of passengers, a freight car is cheaper than a bus), and seat availability (if no actual seats are available, one must sit on the truck bed or the aisle floor on the bus). Using cell phones, the users also share information between one another related to freight charges, fares, and trustworthiness of servi-cha owners and drivers.

Under such circumstances, comparisons and resulting complaints are made regarding, for example, discrepancies in the quality of cars provided for the same cost, or people charged higher than others for booking the same route. Correspondingly, the active exchange of information naturally creates a ‘fair and reasonable’ price in the servi-cha market.

When servi-cha first made an appearance, short distances were easily negotiated with one or two packs of cigarettes. However, nowadays, such payments will not serve. All North Koreans know how much it costs by destination; there is a set price. (A defector from Pyongyang who previously operated servi-cha prior to defecting in 2015)

In the case of a freight truck, depending on details such as operating distance, vehicle type, and cargo type, there is a fair and reasonable price per one metric ton or the market price is segmented accordingly. When there is rigid enforcement of strict regulations, a premium is expected on top of the standard cost.

B. Fixing Prices

As the number of providers and consumers of servi-cha has greatly increased, and information circulation has become more active, fair, and reasonable, freight charges are being determined in the market. At the same time, the owners and drivers of servi-cha have colluded through cell phone conversations to fix prices.

If the same amount of seven metric tons of coal is loaded yet my freight charge is lower, the other owner would lose business. Do you think any owner would just stand by and watch? To prevent such events from happening, we fix the price of cargo per metric ton in advance. (A defector from Ryanggang Province who previously operated servi-cha, prior to defecting in 2013)

If a servi-cha lowers the freight charge and the news spreads that many shippers are flocking to do business there, other servi-cha owners may call this servi-cha owner to ask about the situation. If it is for some unavoidable reason, then the others may agree to lower their freight charge. However, if they cannot reach an understanding, then threats and sometimes violence may be used to raise the price again.

Among the owners, there is a tacit agreement on freight charges, service frequency, and routes taken. For example, if the information is received via cell phone that someone new has entered an already existing route and is creating new competition, intense pressure and punishment amounting even to physical violence may follow.

C. Operation Information

Unexpected situations may occur during the long-distance operation of servi-cha. Possible delays may result from vehicle mechanical problems, a flat tire, or detainment at checkpoints. Before the widespread circulation of cell phones, in the case of such delays, both the sender and the recipient had to wait indefinitely without any information. However, today, if there is an interruption or disruption in transportation time, the driver has to call both the shipper and the recipient immediately to explain the situation. If the driver irresponsibly fails to communicate, then the servi-cha will lose its credibility not only with that one client, but also with the whole community of servi-cha users. The users, when informed of the changes in transport schedule through cell phones, can quickly take responsive measures to minimize the negative impact.

In order to gain credibility and reassure the shippers, it is necessary to make a phone call from time to time (every hour or once every few hours) and inform on the current location and estimated arrival time. For long-distance transport, the drivers may take a break to have a meal at privately run restaurants, and it is also better to notify the shipper of the stopover and current situation. However, sometimes, there are drivers who abuse this.

We even bought enough gas for the servi-cha driver. We were sending cargo to Hamhung, and we had bought more than enough gas to get to Hamhung. Then, this driver, instead of paying for the meal at the restaurant, sold gas we had bought for the delivery journey. Furthermore, he called us to ask for more money saying that he was running low on gas, as the delivery requires more fuel due to the rough roads. Since I was trading illegal goods at the time, I could not break the relationship immediately. So, when he returned after the delivery, I had to bite the bullet and pay him extra. (A defector from Ryanggang Province who previously used servi-cha, prior to defecting in 2013)

As servi-cha expanded, the number of restaurants serving as rest areas on the roadside increased. The restaurants not only sell food, but also make a profit by buying gas from drivers and selling it back to the other drivers at a higher price. Servi-cha drivers usually choose familiar restaurants, but if they need to make a stop at an unfamiliar place, they call people who are familiar with the area to find a suitable restaurant.

3. Changes in the Market

A. Specialization in the Distribution Stage: ‘Sedentary Business’

The combination of servi-cha and cell phones has completely changed the concept of logistics for the North Korean merchants. The method where the shipper travels long distances to deliver the products has long lost competitive market power, and ‘sedentary business’ has become a new mode of transaction. One defector even used the expression ‘a change in paradigm.’

“Before, we had to load the cargo on to the vehicle ourselves to go around selling like peddlers. Now, in North Korean dialect, we use the verb ‘sso-ki (shooting),’ as in buying the goods and sending; in other words, now there are different people in each process, one who sends the goods, another who delivers, and another who receives. The sellers all make money while sitting down.” (A defector from Chongjin of North Hamgyong Province and previously a user of servi-cha, prior to defecting in 2015)

If the merchant himself delivered or picked up the products to and from a client using servi-cha, then it often meant days’ worth of time wasted on the road, physical exhaustion, and dangers of loss and theft. Besides the freight charge, the passenger fare for the merchant and the cost of their own meals were business expenditures that reduced the total profit.[28] There is also a limit on the amount and weight of goods a merchant can carry. The North Korean post offices also provide package delivery services. However, not only does the delivery take a long time, but the packages are also often damaged and prone to mishaps. There is pervading distrust towards the services offered by the post office.

Servi-cha owners who have taken notice of this deficiency have opened up active parcel delivery businesses. The way this delivery system works is that the sender tells the recipient the information of the vehicle and the driver’s cell phone number, and gives the recipient’s cell phone number to the driver. Upon arrival near the destination area, the driver calls the recipient and they communicate directions to the meeting point to successfully complete parcel delivery. Though this entrepreneurial parcel business is not on par with modern parcel delivery service standards, considering the inadequate distribution conditions in North Korea, it is employed as a relatively quick and accurate delivery service.[29]

As such parcel delivery business advances, the number of ‘joonggae-cha,’[30] or trucks specialized in delivery services for cargo, are also on the rise. Especially if a shipper is sending expensive goods, he will not allow any passengers on the flatbed or in the trunk due to the risk of theft. If the cargo disappears or is damaged en route to its destination, the owner or the driver must take responsibility. Even if the truck is empty, if it is on its way to pick up cargo, a joonggae-cha will not pick up a passenger whether or not he or she is willing to pay the fare. The earning of a small sum in passenger fares is not worth risking the vehicle getting pulled over at a checkpoint or experiencing delays while trying to drop people off at their destinations. Especially in the case of joonggae-cha specialized in expensive cargo, timely arrival at the appointed time is crucial in maintaining credibility with the shippers.

B. Long-Distance Money Transfer

Cell phones have made revolutionary changes in North Korea’s private money transfer system. Donju (“money masters”), who have made a large fortune trading in outdoor markets known as jangmadang, are facilitating efficient money transfers through their financial networks and using their mobile phones. Depositing money in the official banking system of North Korea makes it almost impossible to withdraw money. Consequently, North Koreans are hiding money in their homes and making transfers as needed through private networks.

Let us look at an example. A, a wholesale merchant in the border city of Hyesan, sends smuggled Chinese goods through servi-cha to B, a wholesale merchant in Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province. B sells the smuggled goods to retail traders at the jangmadang, and then settles the deferred payment to A for the goods purchased. The money does not actually move from Hamhung to Hyesan, but an ‘ikwan-jib,’a ‘transfer house’ (unofficial financial transfer services) operated by a donju, functions as a bank between Hamhung and Hyesan. If B goes to a nearby ‘ikwan-jib’ to transfer money to A, the ‘ikwan-jib’ of Hamhung contacts a known ‘ikwan-jib’ in Hyesan to give money to A. Then, after receiving money from the ‘ikwan-jib’ in Hyesan, A calls B to confirm the receipt of payment. Between ‘ikwan-jib,’ they have a separate clearing system and also perform money transfer services without trading of goods.[31]

As the combination of servi-cha and cell phones has expanded ‘sedentary business,’ there has been widespread use of methods of transfer such as sending settlement costs in cash through servi-cha drivers (ikwandon or transfer money), or purchasing and sending products requested by a client. The drivers, in return, can take ‘transfer fees.’ Due to the relatively large cargo traded and transported by ‘sedentary businesses,’ resulting settlement costs are also high. In the past, it was difficult to imagine entrusting the delivery of a large amount of money to another person. Fundamentally, as credit transactions were not established, only direct cash transactions were made, and there was even a running joke that “anyone who gets back money that was lent is a hero of the People’s Republic.” However, today, the sender, recipient, and driver can communicate with each other using cell phones to verify accurate money delivery, and this also gives more incentive to the drivers to ensure flawless delivery of the money in order to maintain credibility.

In the case of settling a small sum, the method of transferring call minutes is used. The person who needs to send money charges call minutes on his phone and sends the minutes to the person to whom he owes money. A maximum of one million North Korean won worth of minutes can be transferred, which is the equivalent of about 130 dollars at the black market rate. This method has often been used when sending money to a child who is in the military or to relatives as a wedding gift, and now is also commonly used to make small payments among the merchants. The recipient of minutes can transfer the minutes to other people or to professional minutes traders once again for money. This indicates that some sort of secondary market for minutes is in operation.[32]The monthly price for a basic plan including 200 minutes with Koryolink is only about 10 cents in US dollars, but the price for a rechargeable prepaid card for call minutes is more than 10 times higher.[33]Therefore, minutes in the aforementioned secondary market are treated like a prepaid card and are traded at equally expensive rates. However, the market price is open to negotiation and is largely dependent on one’s ability to haggle.

C. Expansion of Trade Volume

Consumers are also benefiting from the innovation in logistics that resulted from the combination of servi-cha and cell phones. As the merchants are responding quickly to changes in market conditions, product supply to the jangmadang has been smooth. Inter-regional price discrepancies and price hikes have been greatly reduced. In particular, the price of Chinese industrial products has been significantly reduced to the extent that their Pyongyang market prices are almost the same as their actual prices in China. As a result, a sales strategy targeting regional price differences no longer yields a big profit, and this has led to a ‘small profits and quick returns’ approach emerging as the new sales strategy.[34]

Since telecommunications have developed, we know how much the same product costs in different places. So, if a product is more expensive than the average price, it will not sell. Given the increasing number of merchants, the person who sells goods in large quantities may see more profit than someone who is selling based on price differences. In other words, someone who has the capacity to trade in bulk makes more money. (A defector from Chongjin of North Hamgyong Province who defected in 2015)

The reason bulk sale has become possible is because the distribution of cargo trucks in North Korea began with the development of the servi-cha market. While Chinese Dongfeng trucks with a load limit of 5-10 metric tons were heavily smuggled in the 2010s, trucks with a load limit of 20 metric tons have been preferred in recent years. The operating cost of a 20 metric ton truck is lower than that of two 10 metric ton trucks. However, trucks over 20 metric tons are difficult to operate under the poor road conditions of North Korea. According to a defector who frequently communicates with a North Korean source, Chinese-made 20 metric ton trucks are traded at $45,000 for a new one and $35,000 for a used one with an odometer reading of about 100,000 miles.

D. Prolonged Business Relations – Credibility

After the economic crisis in the mid-1990s, the jangmadang rapidly expanded and this also led to the uncontrolled flourishing of various fraudulent activities. The jangmadang was a hotbed of business activity that used unconventional methods for survival. Selling adulterated food and cheating the scales were common at the jangmadang, often leading to a brawl. The will to provide satisfactory service for clients in order to create a stable long-term relationship was a rare sight among the jangmadang merchants.

However, as marketization continues to progress, the importance of credibility has also increased in North Korea. The combination of servi-cha and cell phones has made it almost impossible to survive in markets without credibility.

If the promise is not kept, then he would not profit. If my cargo is not delivered properly according to the instructions, then there would be no further business with that servi-cha in the future. Because I can communicate all information regarding the cargo sent to the recipient on a cell phone, the servi-cha cannot try to think of any ruse while delivering. (A defector from Ryanggang Province who previously operated servi-cha, prior to defecting in 2015)

As the rapid exchange of information became possible through cell phones, the actors related to the servi-cha chain were able to easily check whether the counterpart is a “trustworthy person.” The emergence of servi-cha has led to an increase in the scale of trading and this, in turn, has created greater business risk. Therefore, such credibility checks are essential. Moreover, as it is customary to negotiate the terms of the transaction verbally rather than to write a legally binding contract, although more and more traders prefer to sign contracts in recent years, it is out of the question to make a deal with a person who is not trustworthy. Particularly for servi-cha brokers who live off of networking, maintaining credibility is the key to their marketing strategy. If a loss occurs to either the shipper or the servi-cha owner due to the broker’s mistake in the introduction/facilitation process, then the broker must compensate for the loss. The client with bad credit is placed on a blacklist, and the broker’s network will self-regulate and ‘purify’ the ‘non-credible brokers.’

The credibility of servi-cha is first and foremost dependent on accurate and timely delivery. As such, the driver must keep both the shipper and recipient regularly informed on his current location and status, and he must immediately notify them when an emergency occurs. If a driver neglects such duties, he will earn a reputation as an irresponsible and untrustworthy driver. This is also the reason why empty joonggae-cha specialized in expensive cargo never picks up a passenger on the way to pick up cargos; it is to maintain credibility with VIP shippers by staying on schedule.

Also, in the case of money transfers, a ‘sedentary merchant’ would not be able to entrust large payments to a servi-cha driver if the premise of credibility is not guaranteed. In the past, North Koreans called money lenders or people who repay the loans ‘morons.’ The tendency was that no matter the reason, if one came into possession of someone else’s money, it was considered his. Now, however, this behavior and way of thinking can no longer operate with servi-cha. A driver without credibility has no more footing in the market. As the driver, sender, and recipient can all verify accurate money delivery using cell phones, swindling has become difficult for drivers. On the contrary, among the owners of servi-cha, some even offer loans at low interest rates to shippers in order to strengthen credit relationships.


The combination of servi-cha and cell phone under the Kim Jong-un era gave birth to North Korean-style logistical innovation. Assisted by the rapid exchange of information, the system is evolving to create close ties between servi-cha, wholesale and retail merchants, brokers, fuel oil traders, checkpoints, and other associated actors along the chain. Bringing in new servi-cha customers, pricing freight charges, transferring money, trading gas, and tense situations at checkpoints are all being managed efficiently through communication via cell phones. Along with the development of a North Korean-style parcel delivery services based on these changes, the era of ‘sedentary business’ has begun.

Relationship between Main Actors of Servi-Cha

A new system of logistics has brought about specialization to the process of distribution. Moving away from the previous method involving merchants delivering cargo themselves, the actors have come up with a division of labor and role assignment while dealing with shipping, transporting, receiving, and selling. As a result, costs have been reduced, risk has been distributed and mitigated, cargo volume has expanded, and swift, quick product supply has been made possible in response to changes in market conditions. These structural changes benefited consumers by stabilizing the price of goods. Since sales strategies based on exploiting price differences across regions has lost its competitiveness, the quick-returns policy has emerged as the new sale strategy. Under such circumstances, the influence of donju known as the ‘red capitalists’ continues to grow, widening the income gap among merchants.

The combination of servi-cha and cell phones has facilitated long-term and stable trade relationships, and developed a credit-based logistics system. The expansion of the trade scale has also increased the risk of business failure, and as a result, it is difficult to guarantee the operation of the new logistics system without much needed credibility. In fact, in order for the market to develop, contracts must be fulfilled and the predictability of trade relationships must be secured through legal and institutional arrangements. However, as evidenced by peoples’ deep-rooted distrust in the parcel delivery system of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and the official banking system, the state is unable to properly support its markets via laws and institutions. Quite the contrary, the state criminalizes many entrepreneurial activities through its own Criminal Code. However, ironically enough, declining state functions and corruption result in the state institution’s involvement in smuggling, trafficking fuel oil, and bribery at checkpoints. Widespread state corruption is, in fact, promoting marketization. The predictability of trade relations in the North Korean market has been made possible through the awakening of the self-interested market participants who realized the importance of credibility in the trade relationship cycle and pressured for the prevention of fraud using rapid informational exchanges via cell phones.

The new logistical system of North Korea based on the combination of servi-cha and cell phones has greatly improved the mobility of people, products, and information, and, unlike in the past, has made possible the sharing of information on the movement of people and products in real time between average citizens. At least in this respect, North Korea can no longer be seen as an underdeveloped and closed country where freedom of movement and expression are completely suppressed. Rather, as a current North Korean joke has it, “you have to bribe to move around.” Corruption is undoubtedly rampant in North Korea. However, the weakening of state institutions by corruption fosters the circulation of people, products, and information. As one of the defectors interviewed put it, “freedom is now for sale and one may purchase it.”

Contrasting with the public service of 3G mobile telecommunications decisively provided by the government under the Kim Jong-un era, servi-cha is a spontaneous service product that was created in the market to fulfill internal demand, which the state was compelled to accept. Market participants shaped the new logistical system by taking the lead in combining cell phone and servi-cha. Market participants led the dynamic advancement of the market, and the role of the state was diminished to no more than that of a supporting actor. In the early stages of cell phone distribution, North Koreans acknowledged the state’s provision of the latest mobile telecommunications services and expressed pride.[35] However, according to defectors, as the combination of cell phones and servi-cha progressed, rather than feeling gratitude for the mobile telecommunications, there was growing dissatisfaction with decreasing profit due to state regulation on jangmadang, labor mobilization campaigns, and corrupt officials. At least among the market participants, the state is recognized as the disrupter of market activities. A rift appears to have emerged, putting the state at odds with the people. However, powerful donjus among the market participants have affiliated themselves with state institutions, earning foreign currency and pocketing money on the side. These actors span between the state and the market, and their calculations and reactions in regard to the rift between the state and the people must be followed closely.

The specialization in the distribution chains and proliferation of bulk sales will inevitably require the maintenance and development of road infrastructure in North Korea. The private fuel oil supply system, heavily dependent on smuggling and trafficking from state institutions, will eventually have to be replaced by a legal supply system. As time passes, fuel oil demand will continue to rise and, as a result, an increase in North Korea’s vulnerability to international oil sanctions is highly probable. On the other hand, it would be reasonable to assume that the increased mobility of people, products, and information has already reached an irreversible level. Kim Jong-un’s regime may be able to take measures against the market over the short term. However, it is likely aware of the truth that such an approach is not sustainable. In addition, it was the new logistical system that may have prompted North Korea to show efforts to focus on systematic economic development after declaring the completion of its nuclear arms capabilities.

[1]The word comes from “service” and car in Korean “cha.” See also Ju-min Park, James Pearson, “In North Korea, Deals on the Bus Make Markets Go Round,” Reuters, September 10, 2015.
[2]See Seok-ki Lee, Moon-su Yang, Enu-yi Jung, “Analysis on the Markets of North Korea (Korean),” Korea Institute for industrial Economics and Trade, 2014; Yonho Kim, “Cell Phones in North Korea: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?” U.S.-Korea Institute, 2014.
[3]These areas have an active commercial transaction and distribution, and are connected with other major markets across the nation. Hyesan and Samjiyon of Ryanggang Province, especially, are in close proximity to China as border cities and are main smuggling sites. The majority of products distributed in North Korea are made in China, are imported by means of trade and smuggling, and are distributed nationwide through wholesale markets.
[4]Stacey Banks, “North Korean Telecommunications: On Hold,” North Korean Review, Fall 2005, pp.88-94.
[5]Heba Saleh and Christian Oliver, “N Korea network expects millions of users,” Financial Times, February 2, 2010.
[6]Orascom Telecom Holding, “Earnings Release Third Quarter 2011.” No additional information on Koryolink’s operational performance, except for an intermittent press release and media interviews, is publicly available, after Koryolink ownership was transferred from Orascom Telecom to Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding (OTMT) in 2011. See Yonho Kim(2014) p.12.
[7]For information about Koryolink’s network covered area and its call quality, see Yonho Kim (2014), pp. 24-26.
[8]Earnings Releases 2008-2011 by Orascom Telecom; Orascom Telecom Media & Tech Holding (OTMT) Press Release, “Koryolink Reaches Two Million Subscribers,” May 28, 2013
[9]Orascom Telecom Media & Tech Holding (OTMT) Press Release "OTMT Announces the Adaptation of a Revised Accounting Treatment for its North Korean Subsidiary Koryolink and the Conclusion of its Acquisition of Beltone,” November 8, 2015.
[10]Hootsuite & We are Social, "Digital in 2017: Global Overview", January 24, 2017. 
[11]Originally, Orascom was granted a four-year franchise until the end of 2012, and this license was extended for three years until the year 2015. Therefore, it is possible that North Korea broke the promise and unilaterally introduced a second mobile telecommunication service. This may also have been the result of Orascom failing to meet some of its contractual obligations.Regarding conflict between Orascom and the North Korean government related to repatriated profits, see Anna Fifield, “North Korea tells Egyptian company: Thanks for the cellphones. We’ll take the company, too.” Washington Post, November 19, 2015; Alastair Gale, “Orascom Suffers Static in North Korean Venture,” Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2016.
[12]Yonho Kim, “North Korea’s silent hard currency source: That cellphone business with Orascom,” Foreign Policy, March 17, 2016
[13]Sung-hoon Park, “NIS ‘China, lack of cooperation on sanctions… booming North Korean economy despite continued missile launch’ (Korean),” JoongAng Ilbo, August 1, 2017.
[14]Kang Mi Jin, “Koryolink changes numbers for Kim Il Sung's birth year,” Daily NK, November 25, 2015.
[15]Young Chung, “North Korea, subscribers of ‘Koryolink’ moving to ‘Gangseong net’ (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, April 4, 2016.
[16]Young Chung, “Cell phone makes excessive profits decline (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, February 1, 2013.
[17]Im Jeong Jin, “Servi-Cha: the Lifeblood of the People’s Economy,” Daily NK, October 26, 2010.
[18]In the 2000s, the importance of vehicle transport was fundamental in the North Korea-China smuggling areas to an extent that sayings such as “the wheels make money” and “the drivers are making a fortune” appeared.
[19]Especially with the increase in the number of buses, beginning in the 2010s, a nationwide bus network has been created connecting major cities.
[20]Byung-yeon Kim, “Unveiling the North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition,” Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp.275-6.
[21]Im Jeong Jin, “War Declared on the Servi-Cha,” Daily NK, October 25, 2010.
[22]Jun-ho Kim, “An excessive supply of popular servi-cha (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, August 24, 2015.
[23]According to defectors who regularly contact North Korean residents, in 2014, the price of gasoline was 5 yuan per kg, and in January of 2018, that price had tripled. However, fare rates ofservi-charemain similar,if not lower.
[24]Party agency-owned vehicles’ license plate numbers begin with the number 11 or 12, a cabinet or administrative division license plate begins between 12 and 14, People’s Committees license plates begin between 15 and 17, Ministry of State Security license plates begin between 18 and 20, Liaison office of Central Party license plates begin with 90, and railway traffic division license plates begin with 46.
[25]Jeong-min Noh, “A new gas station in Nampo… about 80 gas stations over the country (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, May 7, 2016.
[26]Kyung-sool Kim, “Petroleum Industry and Circulation in North Korea (Korean),” KDI Review of the North Korean Economy, Korean Development Institute, January 2018.
[27]Yeong-Hui Kim, “Targeting the well-to-do residents, new businesses are opening one after another (Korean),” Maeil Business Newspaper, January 1, 2015.
[28]Yeong-Hui Kim, “‘20 years of jangmadang’ have changed North Korea...Order using a cell phone and pay with private money transfer system (Korean),” Maeil Business Newspaper, January 1, 2015.
[29]Jun-ho Kim, “Servi-cha in North Korea are getting attention as parcel delivery business (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, October 2, 2014.
[30]This term is derived from the word “mediation,” as the vehicle completes the business deal by successfully delivering goods from point A to point B.
[31]Donju run currency exchange business using cell phones (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, June 28, 2013. For North Korea’s private money transfer service through ‘ikwan-jib,’ see Yonho Kim(2014) pp.32-34.
[32]Because soldiers in North Korea are prohibited from using cell phones, when sending money to a child in the military, parents transfer the minutes through the child’s unit commander. Then, the commander cashes in the minutes and transfers the remainder without the amount corresponding to the bribe.
[33]In North Korea, a basic cell phone plan allows 200 free minutes per month for a quarterly service charge of around 3,000 won (less than 40 cents at black market exchange rates). After using up the 200 minutes, subscribers have to add minutes with a rechargeable prepaid card. In the case of Koryolink, they have to charge the card with foreign currency, which is 10-20 times more expensive than basic plan. See Yonho Kim (2014) pp.14-15.
[34]Young Chung, “Cell phone makes excessive profits decline (Korean),” Radio Free Asia, February 1, 2013.
[35]See Yonho Kim (2014), p.37.