Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Letting the Train (Not) Take the Strain

A report carried by Daily NK this morning brings news of the unwelcome return of roofriding, i.e. the practice of travelling on the roof (of a train, in this case), as undertaken by people in low income countries worldwide.

It is unclear whether people are riding on the roofs of trains nationwide; however, it is clear that they are doing so between mountainous Musan and Chongjin, two cities in North Hamkyung Province. But what we also do know, as the article reports, is that power shortages are the talk of the diplomatic community in Pyongyang as well, and one thing that is taught to students taking North Korea Watching 101 on day one is that if things are getting worse in Pyongyang then they have already gotten worse in the provinces.

Thus, we can assume that if there is a shortage of electricity in Pyongyang then there is also a more serious one in the provinces, and if that is true then there must also be a shortage of trains everywhere (since the vast majority of North Korea's main train lines are electrified). This may well be resulting in nationwide roofriding.

The line in question from Musan to Chongjin, which is where the evidence of roofriding has emerged from, branches off from the main Pyongra Line, which takes in Hamheung and Chongjin on its way up the industrial east coast to Rajin and, for those lucky enough, travels onward to Russia. Trains on the line run with ten carriages from Pyongyang to Chongjin, before splitting and one part travelling on to Musan, a border town, the other to Tumengang. Tickets are sold for numbered seats.

The hitch is that the source says there is insufficient power to run the scheduled twice or thrice weekly service, so it is currently only running once. This (hopefully only) temporarily reduced service is not being scheduled, causing the whole thing to become a big, competitive guessing game.

Imagine a train arriving in Chongjin after a 22-hour journey, with passengers (mostly) seated. The part of said train that is travelling to Musan is decoupled, and the waiting commences. Naturally, during the wait more passengers arrive. Needless to say, if today's train is also yesterday's train, then yesterday's passenger is still in today's passenger's seat, so today's passenger either has to fight for it or, with possession being nine-tenths of the law, sit on the floor. Within three days the carriage is packed to the gunnels, leading day four's arrivals to take to the areas between the carriages. By day five, there are people on the roof. It is, as reporter Choi Song Min put it, "Completely inevitable."

The sanguine acceptance of this scenario to be found in many parts of South and Southeast Asia (though not here, granted) is nowhere in evidence in North Korea, however, and the railway police naturally strive to get roofriders off the roof. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is mostly because they don't want Party cadres to see the roofriders, but regardless of the reason it leads to much jostling, argument and bribery. The whole thing, Choi says, "is a complete mess."

However, the bigger question for local people is apparently whether the return of roofriding could actually indicate a wider malaise that might even portend a return to the 1990s famine "nightmare." However, this is unlikely; and, as with most things, that is due to the jangmadang.

It is probable that all the fuel needed to generate 24-hour electricity for Pyongyang during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il took the stuffing out of state reserves at a time of year that is already known for its electricity shortages (winter in Korea is as dry as bone, and North Korea's energy mix contains a great degree of hydroelectric generation). China allegedly delivered food and fuel to North Korea in January, perhaps offering evidence of temporal shortages.

But such a lack of fuel for electricity does not in any way indicate that North Korea is heading from food insecurity to famine. For while electricity for state railways is a state concern, food is delivered privately through the market. It goes without saying that the market is working much the better of the two.

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