The Hitchhiker's Guide to North Korea, No.2: Visitors to North Korea often ask a lot about cars; who is driving them? where do they come from? why are all the license plates different colours? Well, in answer to the colourful part we have compiled this handy little list of useful (dare I say, essential?) reading for anyone about to make the trip to the DPRK so they can add some context to the roads of the Republic!
Blue License plates (which used to be white. The process of changing them began in Nov 2016 and at the time of writing – Jan 2017 – it is nearly complete, at least in Pyongyang) – these belong to companies, state owned companies, of which there are a great many. The first two numbers that stand slightly apart from the following number tell you which company. So any plate with the number 74 belongs to a travel company. If you visit on a tour with Koryo Tours (and why would you not?) then whatever vehicle you will be going around in will be a 74. (to complicate things a bit more these numbers are sometimes reassigned. Tourism vehicles were previously number 91, prior to that they were 88, there may be a reason why, we just don’t know what it is!)
The second most common colour is black – these are longer plates with space for more numbers. These belong to the military or to military-owned companies (so it isn’t just tanks and missile carrying trucks that have these numbers). There may be some magic to the numerology of these plates, but it remains unknown to those of us in the civilian world
Yellow plates are rare, but you do see them, almost always in Pyongyang though. They are privately owned cars. They often have only 3 numbers on the plate too (a mark of their scarcity for sure). Who would drive one of these? Sometimes it is people who have achieved great things for the nation and have been given a car in gratitude (and the fuel ration to go with it, petrol is very expensive indeed in the DPRK), sometimes those who have close relatives in Japan who can send them a cheap second hand car somehow – this explains why most of the yellow plate cars are old Hondas and Nissans, not the higher end vehicles that some companies and state organs manage to afford
There is another kind of blue plate too, a more slightly pastelly powder blue than the modern shiny blue that has replaced the white ones. These are cars driven by foreigners. By Embassy staff and NGOs. The NGO in question can usually be identified by its name plastered on the door of the white Landcruiser (as it inevitably is, this seems to be the go-to vehicle for the aid & development community regardless of where they are stationed). If it is a diplomatic car there will be two numbers distinct at the start of the plate. These correspond to the order in which the country represented established diplomatic relations with the DPRK. So the cars starting with 01 are from Russia (inheriting the mantle, and car fleet, of the USSR), 02, is Poland, 10 is China (late to the game, the excuse being the PRC wasn’t founded until 1949, the DPRK in 1948), the UK for instance comes in at number 48. Not only this, but the next numbers tell you how senior the member of embassy staff is. So the Russian Ambassador drives around in 01 01 the first car of the first diplomatic fleet. This may seem odd and typically quirky North Korean but the US Ambassador in South Korea drives around in car 001 001 for exactly the same reason.
Brand New Fact! - since February 2017 the foreign coommunity has been replacing their previously blue plates with brand new shiny green ones. the number system remains as it was though. If there is more development on this fascinating story we will bring it to you right away!
Red Plates – even more rare – are for resident foreign businesspeople, usually Chinese bosses. There are also cars with red stars on the plate. We’re not quite sure exactly who these are, but they are special in some way for sure.
One thing you might notice there is that the traffic police (man of them Pyongyang’s famous ‘traffic girls’ salute certain cars, seemingly at random. But when is anything random ever done in NK? They are saluting cars whose plates begin with the numbers 7 27. This refers to July 27th; ‘Victory Day’ in the DPRK calendar – when the Korean War Armistice was signed. These plates can be white or black but they belong to people on Party business, so they deserve a salute from the traffic cops apparently, which must be nice for them!
So when you find yourself on a Pyongyang street you don’t need to stare obliviously anymore, you can analyse who is driving where, who the people are, and you can salute when appropriate too, travel with Koryo Tours and give it a try!
(Bonus fact – the 7 27 cars used to be numbered 2 16, Feb 16th being the date of Birth of national Leader Kim Jong Il)
Update as of early 2017: Cars driven by foreigners in Pyongyang now have green license plates.
Updated 22 October 2018
Koryo Tours North Korea Travel Guide | The Definitive Guide to the Sights of the DPRK.