Fiat Albea, Mercedes W124 and even Lada Xray: what is assembled in North Korea at a strange plant in Pyongyang

 

Two languages of one country

The difficulty with transliteration probably began when the name of this plant was written in Korean. The fact is that there are two ways to write the word “Pyung-hwa” (which translates to “world”): 평화 자동차 or 平和 自動車. In the first case, the word is written according to the rules of the phonemic writing of Korean Hangul (aka Joseongyl or Koryeogul). In the second case, it is written in Chinese characters that are used in the context of Korean script (hancha). Hancha is only used to write words of Chinese origin, of which there are about half in Korean.

In theory, the pronunciation should not change from the way they are written, but hell knows. The most used system for writing the Korean alphabet in Latin is the McCune-Reischauer Romanization. According to this system, the name of the plant was written as P’yŏnghwa, with the apostrophe after the “P” periodically omitted and the name written as Pyŏnghwa or simply Pyonghwa. The McCune-Reischauer Romanization was the official Romanization of Korean until a new version was adopted in 2000. According to this system, the name of the plant was spelled Pyeonghwa. Apparently, this is where the different spelling of the plant’s name comes from. I will use the word Pyeonghwa, which I believe is more appropriate in its modern spelling.

Let’s stop with the linguistics and move on to… No, not cars, but economics and politics.

Who to be friends with?

As you remember from the history of Sungri and Pyongsang, North Korea’s auto industry owes its appearance to the strong friendship between North Korea and the Soviet Union. The first cars made in Korea were our Pobeda GAZ M20, GAZ-51, GAZ-63 trucks and GAZ-69 “cross-country vehicle”. It went on in different ways: they made replicas of our ZILs, negotiated the production of KAMAZs, and even more often, they built some crazy variations on the theme of old Soviet cars. At some point in the country’s development, this was enough: we had something to fight with and nothing else was needed. And if anything, there is friendship with the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1990s the situation has changed. The Soviet Union had already collapsed, and the country needed at least some more or less modern cars. Including passenger cars, the lack of which was always enormous. It was impossible to build within a few years such an automobile industry, which would go from making crooked GAZ-69 cars to producing something resembling modern bourgeois cars. There were two ways out of the situation: buying a license to produce some human replicas or building a joint production facility with those who were already successful in the industry.

Buying a license was not the most convenient way of solving the problem for the DPRK. Firstly, North Korea’s leaders had been telling everyone that their car industry was the best in the world and they did not need anything from the West. Secondly, they would not like to let hundreds of spies of the very West to work in their country (otherwise it is almost impossible to localize manufacture of modern automobiles in the technically backward country). Thirdly, it is time to create a really decent plant. Most likely there were dozens of other reasons for the refusal of the license in favor of the joint venture. So there was only one thing left to do – choose a partner.

A partner was found in 1999. It was Moon Sung Myung, or more precisely, his scandalous Unification Church. I won’t go deep into the intricacies of this church (or rather, sect), but those who remember the religious obscurantism in Russia in the early 90s (with Mormons, Baptists, Aquarius sects and other organizations and movements) will certainly remember the “church of Moon”, which also had its followers in Russia in the open-to-discordant 90s. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to drink a cocktail that included Moon Seong Myung’s “blood and flesh” (that is, real blood or semen) and his wife’s blood (or milk) when I joined the sect. All in all, he was a strange man (he died at the age of 92 in 2012).

In his lifetime, Moon Sung-Myung was an inveterate anti-communist, but he could be friends with everyone: with the United States, post-Soviet Russia, a dozen world leaders, and personally with Kim Il-Sung. I don’t know how he managed to do it. He was either carried, threatened with suspension in prison, asked for his blessing, or threatened with closure for tax evasion. But this is not important to us now. The important thing is that he met with Kim Il-Sung in 1991, and in 1999 there was already a joint venture between North Korea (represented by Ryongbong) and South Korea (represented by Moon Song-Myung and the Unification Church).

The question arises: What is the connection between the Unification Church and the automobile industry? Here again, everything is obscure, but there is a brief formulation in Western sources: “The Mekong Auto Corporation in VietNam, connected to the Moon Church. That is, “The Mekong Auto Corporation in VietNam is connected to the Moon Church” (“Moon” in this case is not “moon,” but Moon Song Myung). So let us simply record the fact: some connection between the Moon Church and the Mekong Auto Corporation existed unequivocally. However, below will be the actual evidence of this connection.

The shares of the companies were as follows: Moon Song Myung contributed $54 million to the JV, which gave him a 70 percent stake in the venture. The North Korean company Ryongbong received 30%. Responsibilities were divided in the traditional way: North Korea provided labor and territory, while South Korea provided technology and money. The plant was built in Nampo, in the southern province of Pyongyang. Apparently, something didn’t go very well during construction, so it didn’t get built as planned – not all the facilities were completed. Presumably there should have been 11 workshops, but only the largest and a smaller one were built. The number of jobs is estimated at 250-350 people.

Now it remains to be seen what the new plant was supposed to produce.

A bit of Italy

Here, most likely, we will find the most tangible evidence of some links between the Church of Moon and the Vietnamese Mekong Auto Corporation. As you know, Mekong was producing licensed Fiat, and this is what the joint venture Pyeonghwa began to produce. The first car of the joint venture became the Fiat Siena – a compact sedan, initially produced in Brazil since 1996, and a little later – in very many not very developed countries. Its closest relative, designed for slightly more developed countries (but not for Western Europe), is the familiar Fiat Albea.

Production of the Siena began on April 20, 2002. It was not so much production as reassembly of almost finished Siena imported to the DPRK from Vietnam. A year later, the company switched to full-cycle assembly.

The name of the Sienna assembled in the DPRK at Pyeongchang was somewhat unusual – Hwiparam I (sometimes spelled Hwipharam, Fiparam, Hweepaaram or Hviparam). This word is translated as “whistle,” “whistle. Of course, one model was not enough for the success of the joint venture – it was necessary to master the production of new cars.

Hwiparam I

Pyeongkhwa’s second model was the Ppeokkugi I, the “cuckoo. It was the Fiat Doblo, which never became popular. Its production lasted about two years – 2003-2004, after which the car was taken off the assembly line.

Ppeokkugi I

Localization of European cars was not the cheapest thing to do. In addition, I think there may have been some issues with the Fiat license. After all, the scheme for introducing these cars to the DPRK market via the Vietnamese Mekong looks a bit murky. In these circumstances, it was interesting to develop another product that had less to do with Europe. And it was mastered, and at least one niche (crossovers) was free.

The new model, called Ppeokkugi II, became Chinese Dandong Shuguang. It happened in March 2004, and in April of the same year the company presented Ppeokkugi III: double cab pickup based on the same SUV. What is significant about Ppeokkugi II is that it was the first North Korean truck, which was exported. Of course, to Vietnam. There this car was sold under the name Pyonghwa Premio.

Ppeokkugi II

Production of these cars went until 2006, in 2007 there was a new generation. Another update Ppeokkugi III experienced in 2009.

Ppeokkugi III

A distinctive feature of the vehicles built on the basis of Chinese Shuguang is their rather significant export to Vietnam. And, for example, a diesel pickup called Premio DX was designed only for the Vietnamese market.

The last Chinese Shuguang assembled in Pyeongchang was the Shuguang (Huanghai) CUV Landscape, called Ppeokkugi 4WD-1. It has been in production since 2008, and in 2013 the car underwent a restyling in which it was named Ppeokkugi 2405.

Ppeokkugi 4WD-1

The Korean way of liquor

“Whistles” and “cuckoos” are cool, of course. But only for the people, and the elite clearly lacked it. That’s why Pyongyong-hwa has been concerned with the production of another line of cars – the executive Zunma (translated as “horse”). Well, if you steal, you steal a million. More precisely, Mercedes. And it is terrible to steal from Mercedes, therefore it was necessary to steal South-Korean Ssangyong Chairman. And it was already stolen Mercedes W124. Externally, in my opinion, the car has turned out wild and not very similar to handsome W124. Koreans have disfigured it like a turtle. It is strange, but my opinion was shared by rich people of the DPRK, which did not like this creation very much. As a result, this monster was produced only for two years (2004-2005), and that was the end of the Mercedes story.

Zunma

But it started with the Chinese Brilliance. In Pyeongchang, they started producing a copy of Brilliance Junjie, but sold it under the name of Hwiparam II. And in 2010 came the Hwiparam III (aka Hwiparam 1405), which was a copy of the Brilliance FSV (BS2). This car was noticeably simpler and cheaper, and now you can often see it as a cab in Pyongyang.

Hwiparam II
Hwiparam III

And finally, since 2005, the same plant has been producing remarkable Jinbei minibuses. In fact, they were fourth-generation Toyota Hi-Ace. But the buses were a hit, and there are still quite a few of them running on the streets of North Korea.

Микроавтобус Jinbei
Производство микроавтобусов Jinbei

Still, Pyong-hwa was unable to reach the planned production volume of 20,000 cars per year. In its best year, 2011, only 1,820 cars were produced. The “Unification Church” decided to sell its share for an immodest 200 billion dollars. No one wanted to pay this money for their share in Pyongyang, and then in 2012 the church finally did the right thing: they gave their share to the North Korean government. True, in exchange for this it got a bunch of lucrative contracts in the hotel business (I wonder why they needed this in North Korea?), but that’s another story.

We have our own moustaches

So Pyonghwa is no longer a joint venture, but a state-owned North Korean automobile production facility. Unwittingly, the question arises: How can you master new models, even Chinese ones, without South Korean help in the depths of your iron soul? It would seem that there is no way. And we can give up on Pyongyang. But of course not!

Do you know how many new models Pyeonghwa exhibited at the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Exhibition? 36. Thirty-six, Carl! Where did they get them all? Oh, that’s easy. If you strain your eyes a little and look at these cars, you can soon find Chinese ears sticking out of all of them. I won’t list all 36 models, I’ll just name a few: Hwiparam 1504 is Brilliance FSV, Hwiparam 1516 is FAW Oley, Hwiparam 1518 is Brilliance H330, Hwiparam 1607 is FAW (which in turn is old Volkswagen Jetta), Hwiparam 1610 is FAW Besturn B50, Hwiparam 1613 is also FAW and also Volkswagen Jetta, but newer, Hwiparam 2005 is Brilliance Zunchi. And so on. And there are also quite decent buses and trucks. For example, Samcheonri 0606, which is actually King Long, or Samcheonri 0713, the former JAC Refine M5.

Pyonghwa Hwiparam 2009 (FAW Besturn B90)

In a word, nothing had to be developed from scratch. But still, how did the Koreans manage to set up the production of such a huge number of cars of different classes in such a short time? Do you have any ideas? That’s what I was puzzling over at first. But it turned out to be simple. It’s roughly the same as the iPhone: most of this splendor was assembled… in China, too. But under the Pyonghwa brand. True, not all cars have the Pyongkhwa logo (two doves of peace) on them, and, for example, our Lada Xray was left without a logo at all. Like, for example, BYD F3 Lifan 820, Beijing BJ40 and several other vehicles. However, recently there was a photo of XRay with branded doves on the grille. Restyling, I guess.

Of course, there are still a lot of questions. First of all, there are different opinions about what the plant is actually doing today. They write differently. Someone says that small-scale assembly is still going on there. Moreover, there is information that part of its production is still exported to Vietnam through the mediation of the same Mekong Auto Corporation. Some say that the Chinese even put the Pyongyang logos on their cars themselves, and the plant only imports these cars. I think this is not entirely true, and there is still production of its own. By the way, the DPRK says that all these cars are assembled in the DPRK. Well, I wish they had said something different…

Ppeokkugi 2405 (Huanghai CUV Landscape)

It is not clear how the dealer service of these cars is organized. Does Pyeongkhwa have the ability to service and repair such a line of vehicles? Are there warehouses of spare parts? It’s hard to say.

So far we can only say one thing: there is a choice of new cars in the DPRK. At least on paper. At least the Chinese ones. Well, what they actually buy there, and in what quantities, I can’t say – it’s also a big Korean secret. Of course, it is a state secret, like everything in this closed, but interesting country.

 

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