Taxis parade once-empty streets of North Korea's capital Pyongyang

Taxis parked outside a train station in downtown Pyongyang, Oct 7, 2015.
Taxis parked outside a train station in downtown Pyongyang, Oct 7, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Ahead of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party anniversary on Saturday (Oct 10), it is a parade of taxis, not tanks, that stands out most in the isolated country's capital, Pyongyang.

Parts of impoverished North Korea have been serviced for decades by a small fleet of run-down taxis, but in the last few years the industry has mushroomed in Pyongyang, fuelled by a rising consumer class.

One of the newest players is Air Koryo, North Korea's national airline, which launched a fleet of sky blue and white taxis when Pyongyang's new airport terminal opened earlier this year.

"They didn't just trickle in," said Mr Rowan Beard, a guide with Young Pioneer Tours, which brings in Western visitors. "Suddenly there were blue taxis absolutely everywhere."

The for-hire signs on the roofs of taxis cruising for fares now punctuate Pyongyang's dimly-lit roads at night.

Air Koryo's taxis include sedans as well as mini buses and SUVs.

Commercial activity is highly regulated in North Korea but in recent years public-private partnerships between state enterprises and private investors from both inside and outside the country have helped foster a burgeoning dual economy.

North Korea's Ministry of Transport first imported Chinese-made green and yellow taxis in 2013, regular visitors and residents of Pyongyang said, adding to an older fleet of worn-out Volkswagens and locally-produced sedans.

That was followed the same year by an influx of more Chinese-made taxis, this time in burnt orange and yellow livery, but adorned with the logo of the Korea Kumgang Group (KKG), a North Korean company with reported links to a foreign partner.

Ryong Sung Min, a Pyongyang taxi driver, told a foreign journalist invited to cover the anniversary events that business was good in the year he had been driving his KKG taxi.

Air Koryo was the third, and a fourth taxi company connected to the new Masik Ski Resort has also appeared in recent months.

Movements by foreign journalists in Pyongyang for events that are expected to include a military parade on Saturday were tightly controlled and interaction with locals in the isolated country was carefully minimised. Taking a taxi required advance approval and arrangement.

Foreigners taking taxis are encouraged to pay in United States dollars. Drivers charge a US$2 (S$2.80) base price, and 50 cents per kilometre after that.

Customers can also use a local Narae Card cash card to pay their fare, although the machine using chip-and-pin technology in one taxi was not working, according to the driver, and cash seemed preferred elsewhere as well.

The influx of taxis has contributed to an increase in traffic in recent months, with residents and regular visitors saying congestion has made them late for meetings - a common occurrence in most capitals but once unheard of in a city known for wide, empty boulevards.

Some busy junctions are now controlled by automatic traffic lights instead of the blue-uniformed Pyongyang traffic ladies, iconic for the semaphore-like gestures they use to dance with the traffic.

CCTV cameras have been installed on some traffic lights - unsurprising in a country known for the surveillance of its people, but also perhaps a reflection of growing congestion and efforts to combat it.

Mr Kim Myong Chol, smartly dressed in a dark suit and large-framed sunglasses, said he started driving his taxi just last year.

"I like this job," Mr Kim told Reuters during a recent taxi journey in the presence of a government minder. "I'm providing a service to the people".