North Korean Grade 1 Driver’s License Near Impossible to Obtain

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

“There is no better way to make a living than being a driver in North Korea. By delivering food, vegetables and even lumber for winter use to companies, one can take a portion as a driver too. Even when transporting radishes or cabbages for Kimchi (Korean cabbage pickles) one can always put aside the ones of best quality in a plentiful amount.”

Defector Kim Choong Il [pseudonym] who had come to South Korea due an unavoidable situation had worked in North Korea as a driver for a company. Reminiscing his days as a driver in North Korea he smiled and even said that he missed the life.

“People who need cars come ask and even bring gas so there are no expenses on my part. I just need to drive. I rarely even ate at home. Most of the time I was treated out. Because there are no means of transportation, everyone wants to use cars. I even make some business when I drive long distances for company-related work. Sometimes when I drive a couple merchants on the road because they beg me to give them a ride, I get drinks and cigarettes for free.”

In South Korea, any healthy adult – male or female – is eligible for driver’s license. However in North Korea, there are several classes of driver’s licenses and they limit the training of drivers. Driver’s licenses are that much recognized in North Korea.

In South Korea, being a driver is not the ideal profession but in North Korea, a “car driver” is very popular. Once you obtain your driver’s license and get assigned to a truck, you never have to worry about making a living again. The income is fairly good.

Kim said, “There is just one time that I faced a difficult situation working as a driver.”

A Conscientious Accountant is the First to Starve

He said, “While transporting radishes and cabbages for the company employees’ use, I put aside 2 tons for an accountant and myself. If a driver takes it alone then he’ll be caught by the accountant so the two collaborate to embezzle goods. But the new accountant was a conservative and nice woman. She refused the 1 ton of cabbages that had been allotted to her and demanded that I bring back my portion too. I begged her “to turn the other way” but it didn’t go through. I ended up restoring the cabbages and radishes.

Moreover, he said, “this nice accountant was the first to starve when the food rations ended in 1995. She had been conservative and waited for rations from the Party but ended up dying. I survived. Even in the Great Starvation period, none of the drivers starved to death.”

To obtain a driver’s license in North Korea, one must learn about the basic structure of the car and simple maintenance operations along with a year of driving practice at an automobile driving school. After a year of education and passing the test, a diploma is given.

Only with this diploma the Automobile Management Bureau of the provincial Safety Agency (County Police Agency) gives out an official driver’s license. At this time a Grade 4 is given. With this “Grade 4”, one can’t automatically start driving.

There are heavy equipment driver’s license to operate excavators and tractors and automobile driver’s license. Heavy equipment driver’s license has 7 grades and automobile driver’s license has 4 grades.

Most “Grade 4” drivers work as assistant drivers to drivers with much experience for at least 3 to 5 years and gain experience and skills on driving and car repair. Even afterwards, one must give bribes to the affiliated company (factory) to receive one’s own car and drive.

Grade 1 License is Nearly Impossible

Once a driver who has been distributed a car drives without any accidents, their grade is raised once every 3 to 5 years. If they get into an accident, the promotion rate slows down.

According to the testimony of another defector Choi Young Chul [pseudonym] who had worked as a car driver, most drivers obtain a “Grade 4” status after 10-15 years of experience. However, from “Grade 3” it’s not just driving that one must excel at. From “Grade 3” regardless of years of experience and lack of accidents, one must pass the National Public Official Exam to obtain [higher levels].

“Grade 3 drivers are given the same license as a college graduate. In Kimchaek City where I lived there were only two people who had a Grade 2 driver’s license,” he said.

Choi said, “To obtain a “Grade 1”, you must be able to build a car. Realistically even if most drivers drive long-distance for more than 30 years, they remain at “Grade 4”. Even if you graduate from Dukcheon Automobile College (3 years), you’re only given a “Grade 4″. If you graduate with flying colors, you’re given a Grade 3.”

The reason it’s hard to obtain a “Grade 3″ driver’s license in North Korea is because drivers must have overall knowledge about maintenance as well as thorough knowledge and skills on repair.”

With a highway system that is deteriorated and the absence of a car repair system, the frequency of break downs or troubles are very high. Also, most civilian cars excluding military cars have a severe deterioration.

Choi also exposed, “There is an item that North Korean drivers never forget when they leave for a long distance trip. Lighters, rice, drinking water and a pot are integral. It’s like our life. When there’s a severe problem and it’s impossible to fix on the spot, they survive off of the rice and call the factory and wait. Most drivers who have driven for 10 years struggle from gastroenteric trouble.

It’s Choi’s explanation that if a car breaks down in an uninhabited area in the winter or a mountainous road, it can eventually lead to a human casualty. Thus it is the driver’s burden to take care of the damages and repair as well as the casualties from it.

On the other hand, the North Korean military trains army drivers for the military through a separate driving school in each troop. Recruits who had just graduated from middle-high school receive education for a year at the driving school to work as army drivers. In “Ohro Driving School” in Youngkwang, South Hamkyung Province and “Lanam Driving School” in Lanam-district, Chongjin, North Hamkyung are representative army driving schools in the Hamkyung Province areas.

Once they finish their rookie training and dispatched to a base, they fulfill their army duty by working as a car driver. After being discharged, these military drivers must go to the corresponding Defense Department Automobile Management Bureau and exchange their licenses with societal driving licenses.

The amusing fact is that at this time most army drivers receive societal driving licenses that is a grade lower than one that was given in the military. It is also evidence that the North Korean society does not trust the discharged soldiers who tend to cause accidents frequently.


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