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Everything You Might Want to Know About Cycling in North Korea

By Adam Marsal

Nuclear tests, ballistic missiles, communist ideology, the cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim family, and the recent inaccessibility made North Korea a mysterious country. Yet, the ice is slowly melting, and the country opens to the rest of the world, including cyclists.

For its name might be translated as a flat land, the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang should be geographically bicycle-friendly. Ironically, cycling was banned till 1990 because it was officially considered incompatible with ‘the fluency of the traffic’, presented by the leading Workers’ Party of Korea.

A local resident cycles past the building of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. © Profimedia, TASS

While in neighbouring China the progress from walking over cycling to motorised transportation has been natural, North Korea tried to introduce cars as the major mean of transport and therefore bicycles were put aside by law. Without exaggerating, the streets of Pyongyang were entirely clear of bicycles until the first half of the 90s. However, with the deficiency of available vehicles, the official doctrine had to be revised and despite the enormous purchase price, bicycles became popular in the entire society. According to official statistics, each family owns one or two bikes these days.

As long as you can sacrifice sporty rides, you’ll be pleased by the quality of local brand “Songchong-gang” with step-through frames and baskets on the handlebars. Some cheap bikes from China are also available, however, people mostly prefer second-hand bikes delivered from Japan. All bicycles must be registered and provided with plates like cars.

Women were prohibited from cycling till 2012 as ladies on bikes were regarded as immodest and socially undesirable. Although violating the ban could be fined with the penalty up to 5,000 North Korean Won, the ban was rather ignored.

Riding bikes is still not without hindrances, though. Not long ago, all cyclists had to use sidewalks only and were obliged to dismount at each crossing. With the growing number of cyclists in the streets, Pyongyang opened dedicated cycle paths to protect pedestrians in 2015. Unlike sidewalks paved with cobblestones, the cycle paths have a smooth and convenient surface as you can see on the YouTube video uploaded by Western cycling pioneers.

Like anywhere in the world, even in the bike lanes of Pyongyang, you might not avoid a puncture risk, even though the quality of the pavement seems to be outstandingly high.

While visiting Pyongyang, you can save some steps by using shared bicycles. The city launched an bike-sharing program two years ago. About 100 bike racks have been installed nearby bus and train stations in the city. In a country where bicycles are popular, yet still very expensive, the price of share ride is everything but encouraging – for a minute of the ride, you will pay 40 won which is the price of 8 tickets. Foreigners would stay calm, though, as one hour costs 3000 won which is less than 3 euros.

In the countryside of the predominantly rural country, visitors should be prepared for using dirt tracks and meeting with bemused looks from the locals, not quite used to see foreigners on bikes.

Contrary to general opinion, getting into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not that difficult, even though individual cycling trips are not permitted. All you need to obtain the tourist visa is to book a scheduled tour with local guides that must be assigned to the Ministry of Tourism and associated with major travel services from the capital city. There are more agencies that could help you organise the trip like Uritours.com or Koryogroup.com. The fee for issuing a visa for EU citizens is 60 euros including postal expenses. You’re likely to wait for a visa from 6 to 8 weeks.

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