to the people: electric bikes take off in North Korea
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[May 07, 2016]
By James Pearson
PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Wheels have long
been a sign of economic status for both individuals and nations, and on
the lightly trafficked streets of Pyongyang, capital of impoverished and
isolated North Korea, electric bicycles are the hottest new ride on the
Almost unseen two years ago, the Chinese-made two-wheelers are a
common site this week in the city, which hosts the first congress of
the country's ruling Workers' Party in 36 years.
Kim Jong Un, whose family has run the country for nearly 70 years,
is expected to consolidate his leadership at the congress.
While pedal-powered bikes still predominate on Pyongyang's wide
avenues, the electric bike trend began in the last year, locals and
foreign residents of the North Korean capital said.
On Saturday, a Reuters journalist covering the congress saw six of
the bikes in the space of 10 minutes.
"You can carry luggage," said Kim Chol Jin, a computer science
student at Kim Chaek University of Technology, who was riding his
electric bike along Mirae Scientists Street.
"My wife bought me this to help shorten my commute," he told Reuters
journalists, who were accompanied by a government guide.
The proliferation of electric bicycles follows another recent local
consumer trend: a surge in residential usage of LED light bulbs and
solar panels, to get around the country's chronic electricity
A bike made by a Chinese company called Anqi was for sale this week
in Pyongyang's Kwangbok Department Store for 2.62 million won -
around $330 at the unofficial exchange rate of 8,000 won to the
dollar. While that is well beyond the reach of the average North
Korean, an expanding gray market economy has given rise to a growing
consumer class known as "donju", or "masters of money".
Most residents still commute by foot or on the city's crowded buses.
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Ou Xiongfei, sales manager at another company, Benling Cycle Tech
Limited Co in Dongguan, China, said its electric bikes and
motorbikes are exported via trading companies to countries including
Argentina, Iran and North Korea.
"Lots of our e-bikes and e-motorcycles are exported to North Korea,"
she told Reuters by phone.
Traffic is getting busier in Pyongyang, which last year began laying
out its first dedicated bicycle lanes.
To ease congestion, authorities have even introduced a system to
alternate the days vehicles are allowed on the once all-but empty
Traffic is still far from gridlock, but electric bikes have now
joined the taxis, a growing fleet of private cars, and the
Soviet-era trolleybuses that have plied the capital for decades.
The trolleys are hooked up to the electricity grid, making them
vulnerable to outages, so electric bikes are an increasingly popular
alternative when power doesn't flow to the people.
(Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe
and Will Waterman)
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