In North Korea’s fledgling market economy, a fleet of repurposed old passenger buses, known as “servi-cha” – the name comes from “service” and “car”, move trade goods between far-flung corners of the country.
“In the past you had to deliver stuff in person. Now, buses are the way it is,” said Kim Heung-kwang, a defector who heads the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity organization in Seoul and maintains links with sources inside his secretive homeland. “Rice can be sent … cattle move around with these buses. Raw materials can now be delivered around the country.”
The servi-cha are another example of a growing tolerance for private enterprise within North Korea, where informal markets and small trading firms have burgeoned in recent years alongside a creaking centrally-planned Soviet-style economy.
Internal travel remains restricted in authoritarian North Korea and vehicles cannot officially be privately owned, but defectors say goods loaded on buses are off the regime’s radar, especially outside Pyongyang, the showpiece capital. Entrepreneurs can partner with state organizations to register buses on their behalf and share the profits, according to a 2014 paper from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade in Sejong, South Korea.