North Korean tire shortage grounds vehicles, disrupts commerce

A shortage of tires in North Korea is forcing many of the nation’s motor vehicles off the road, crippling the ability of some companies to carry out normal business operations, company officials in the country told RFA.

Automobiles are a relatively rare sight on the northern half of the Korean peninsula, especially outside of the capital Pyongyang. Even there, usually only the wealthy elites own cars.

Most of the motor vehicles in the country are attached to either the military or to state-owned companies.

The shortage is yet another effect of a two-year-long border closure and trade ban with China due to the coronavirus. Sources said domestic production of tires is negligible and importing tires has been almost impossible.

“New tires are very rare and even used tires are hard to find,” an administrative official at a transportation company in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service on Jan. 9.

“Tire shortages have occurred in the past, but it is extremely difficult to find them these days, just like it was during the Arduous March,” the source said, referring to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine and economic collapse which killed millions of people.

The source said that two of the four cars owned by his company cannot be used due to the tire shortage.

“Drivers will use the same tires until the treads are worn out and shiny, so it has become the norm to re-use punctured or torn tires by putting a small piece of an old tire tube over them. Sometimes they have to be put in at an angle because the tires they are using are either larger or smaller than the vehicle’s specifications,” the source said.

“I have never seen new tires produced locally. Since international trade is stopped due to the border closure, it has become difficult to import used tires,” said the source.

The ban has become problematic for many North Korean drivers who use their vehicles for supplemental jobs in the country’s nascent market economy, the source said.

“They can no longer drive their cars to earn a little extra income because they don’t have tires.”

At a company in Hongwon county in nearby South Hamgyong province, a 2.5-ton truck has been grounded since the fall because its tires are worn out, an official from the company told RFA Jan. 10.

“Due to a fuel shortage a long time ago, the vehicle was converted to run on wood charcoal fuel. We only used it a little bit, only when it was absolutely necessary. But these days even if you have charcoal, you still can’t drive it because the tires are worn out,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Drivers these days can make money by driving their company cars as they wish, and they pay for tires and parts by themselves. They sometimes even provide their own charcoal when they need to, but now they can’t because they can’t find tires,” the second source said.

The second source said the company’s policy on after-hours use has kept many of the company’s vehicles in commission until now.

“The cars would have been out of service long ago if it were not up to the drivers to maintain them. Among the other businesses in the province that have been supplied with cars like we have, many have already disposed of their vehicles,” the second source said.

Only the most profitable companies, like the fisheries, have enough money to keep their vehicles running, the second source said.

“Ultimately, things are more difficult for most companies because without tires there is no choice but to park the vehicles. This makes life harder for their workers.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.