Secret Sungri: plant in North Korea, where they still produce GAZ-51 descendants (but not exactly)

 

There are many tales and fears about North Korea. They say that cell phones only became available to its citizens in 2013, and that tourists who do not go to the shrine of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the Palace of the Sun, will be incinerated by napalm. Truth is hard to separate from fiction, so I will periodically make remarks regarding the veracity of the information. Unfortunately, I can’t do without it.

Once was the first, now is the second.

What do we know about automobile industry of this country? Not so much. It is so secret that there is not even an exact figure on how many cars are produced and sold in the DPRK per year. The figures vary, but they are ridiculous in any case. The market capacity of the country with its population of 26 million people is estimated at 40 to 50,000 cars a year, but in fact the production, of course, is not happy with this number of cars. Even the largest plant, Pyeonghwa Motors General Corp (a joint venture between North Korea and South Korea with a rare beauty, and the word Pyeonghwa is translated as “peace”) produces something like five hundred cars a year. And what kind of cars: mainly copies of the Fiat Albea (aka Hvipharam, “whistle”) and Fiat Doblo (Pogguki, “Cuckoo”). Even from its assembly line come out, for example, variations on the theme of Toyota and SsangYong. In fairness, I should note that in the best years (approximately 2009-2011) the production reached almost 1.5 thousand units per year, but then something went wrong. To survive, Pyeonghwa exports some of its machines to Vietnam.

It may be worth telling about this plant sometime separately, but today we will talk about another enterprise – Sungri Automobile Plant, which was the largest plant in North Korea before Pyeonghwa Motors emerged.

By the way, notice the scale, right? 500 cars is the largest plant. Henry Ford is rolling over in his grave.

A logical question arises: why is the production volume so paltry? Maybe they just don’t need the cars. Here I put a mark “found on the Web in no less than two sources”: one hundred percent reliability is not guaranteed, but everything can be.

So, the first reason is difficulty of acquisition of a personal auto. No matter how much a new car costs, it is difficult to buy it in a country where salaries start at ten dollars a month. The second reason is the difficulty in obtaining a driver’s license. According to some tourists who have talked to locals (no other sources available), a candidate needs two years of experience as a mechanic or other profession, where they could become well acquainted with the mechanics of the car, before learning their license. This is followed by six months of training, which must be attended like a full-time job.

This is due to the fact that the fleet of the DPRK is somewhat reminiscent of the Cuban fleet: a lot of old stuff and hodgepodge. And somehow one has to know how to repair it all, because there are problems with service (there is almost none). By the way, gas stations are hard to find, and departmental cars prefer to fill up directly in the fleets. In our country, it’s much easier to repair the car yourself because of the free access to the Internet: you don’t know – look up tips, do it. In North Korea, only tourists and some officials have free access, others find it more difficult and more expensive, although mobile access and even Internet cafes are now appearing. So the driver in North Korea also has to be a mechanic. There are four categories of driving licenses in North Korea, and getting a category for a car is more difficult than for a truck, bus, or off-road vehicle.

It’s no surprise that personal vehicles are a luxury. The automobile industry is much more interested in producing what the party told it to produce: buses, trolleybuses, trucks and military vehicles. Trolleybuses, by the way, are better than buses: the situation with gasoline and diesel is not good either. It’s funny, though, that the once-popular Chollima 951 trolleybuses are Hungarian Ikarus 260, with an electric motor chucked in instead of the internal combustion engine. Well, let’s not get sidetracked and return to our Sungri automobile plant.

Chollima 951

Thank you comrades!

Sungri is translated into Russian as “victory. But how to pronounce it correctly, I can’t say. They spell it “Synni”, “Sungri”, “Sangri”, “Sanni”, and “Sangi”. If anyone knows how to read 승리자동차종합기업소 more accurately, I would love to see the correct version in a comment. I, on the other hand, will write Sungri for now. So, this modern name (fully Sungri Motor Plant) the plant received in 1975. But it was founded in 1950. At that time, it was called otherwise – the Tokcheon Automobile Plant, and was located, as the name suggests, in the city of Tokcheon.

I haven’t been able to find out what the factory was doing between 1950 and 1958. Most likely, until 1954, there was nothing to do except repair Korean War vehicles. And since 1958 it began producing the car Sungri-58. Korean comrades should say great thanks to their USSR comrades for this car: Sungri-58 is quite an exact licensed copy of our GAZ-51. The same truck, but under the name Yuejin NJ130, as many know, in those years was the first automobile assembled in China.

There is very little information about cars from North Korea, so I would like to thank Andrey Trubin who collected almost all available information about these cars in his blog “Cars from North Korea and other exotic countries” and allowed me to use it for this material. Some of it, of course, I will supplement, but the lion’s share of information – the merit of Andrew.

So, Sungri-58. To be honest, this is one of the few Sungri cars that were made under license. Often, cars were simply bought, disassembled, scrutinized, and assembled the same one, but their own. But Korea was friends with the USSR. That is why Korean Sungri-58 was licensed.

There were not many differences from our GAZ-51. First of all it is noticeable a different grille, but here is a funny thing: it is widely-spread information, that Sungri-58 had “weaker springs” in its suspension. Somebody blurted it out, others reposted it. If the author finds springs in GAZ-51 (or Sungri-58) spring suspension, I will be very surprised. Even more ridiculous is the story on the Web about “uneconomical diesel engine”. There was one engine on this car – GAZ-11. And it is gasoline. In general, all the rest is conjecture.

But one fact is confirmed by numerous photos: Koreans liked very much gas-generator versions of Sungri-58, which worked on firewood. It was connected not only with a shortage of gasoline, but with a terrible fuel consumption, which, judging by reviews, the Korean car had even more than the GAZ-51, because of the low culture of production. In particular – the carburetor. So the gas generator came in handy.

Sungri-58.

This car was produced for a very long time – until 1979, the release of modification Sungri-58KA. Just as with the GAZ-51 in the USSR, on the basis of Sungri-58 was made a bus, surprisingly similar to our GZA-651 (and its modifications from PAZ and KAVZ with “face” from GAZ-51/51A). On almost the only picture of this “box”, which walks around the Internet, on the side of the hood can be seen the same inscription Sungri-58, so unfortunately the index of the model can not be established.

Koreans have one quirk – to give an index to the model, coinciding with the year of start of manufacture. Therefore let’s look at the following car, production of which begun three years later than Sungri-58, at Sungri-61. Ring any bells? Yes, it is all-wheel drive version of 51st “gas” – GAZ-63. There is nothing to add.

Sungri-61.

We always thought that the GAZ-51 was some kind of Soviet long-liver (it was produced from 1946 to 1975). The Korean brother almost surpassed it. No, officially in 1979 a new generation came out – Sungri-58KA. Externally, the car looks new and not like GAZ-51. And it does not look like our GAZ-52 – Korean made its own cabin. But inside this Sungri-58KA is the same Sungri-58 chassis. Remember, something similar was with GAZ-52, which was an externally remade GAZ-51, but internally unmade GAZ-53? Here it is the same. And they produced this little thing for a very long time. But nobody knows exactly how long… Someone writes that it is still on the assembly line, but probably this is not true: there is a fresher generation.

The production of the Sungri-58KA fell on the heyday of the factory itself. In the early 1980s Sungri Motor Plant used to produce up to 20,000 cars per year, but by the end of the 90s it barely managed to produce 150-200 cars a year. Nevertheless, even in 2009, Kim Jong-Il personally still remembered the good old Sungri-58. There was even a report issued by the Korean Central News Agency in March 2009: “The Korean leader praised its workers, saying they ‘had made a great contribution to the country’s economic development. The company’s calling card remains its “firstborn” – the Seungri-58 truck <…>. In the early 80’s the Synri plant broke off the traditional ties with the Soviet enterprises and started to modernize the produced models by itself.

And Sungri-58KA based on GAZ-51 was producing for at least another 20 years.

Sungri-58KA.

What is still in production today is the all-wheel-drive version of the Sungri-61NA. The production of this car was started in 1979, but they have not invented anything better since then, so it is still in production today. First of all it is produced for army. But there is enough work for it in the national economy of the DPRK. Technically it is the same GAZ-63, but with a cabin similar to the Sungri-58KA.

I mentioned that some people are mistaken, thinking that Sungri-58KA of 1979 is still on the assembly line. I think the roots of this mistake come from where the Koreans restyled this model in 2008 and 2009. These cars are very difficult to sort out.

Let’s start with the fact that 2008 is a very conventional figure. It was the year someone noticed the car on the roads, but even Kim Jong-un himself probably doesn’t know when it was released. Most likely, it appeared 10-15 years earlier, but it’s all in the realm of conjecture. The problem of finding out the year of the appearance of these cars becomes unsolvable also because very few cars were made in those years, and their appearance on the roads could simply go unnoticed. Especially with a large number of very survivable Sungri-58KAs.

In terms of technology is also nothing clear. There is an opinion that the payload has increased from two to two and a half tons, but what is the basis for it is absolutely unclear. What engine is there is also unknown. It is logical to assume that it is some Chinese, but on the other hand, Sungri-61NA with an engine from GAZ-51 is still produced today, so there is a probability that this machine in 2008 (or not the 8-th) is the same clone of GAZ-11 engine.

Sungri-61NA.

I would be inclined to the Chinese engine: all the cars with GAZ-11 clones have a lot of photos with gas generator units, but I have not seen such in the newer ones. Could it be the more economical new engines? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fact that there are no pictures of these newer cars, either.

Restyling of 2009 at least can be accurately dated: there were some dates from the Korean press. But that’s all. The chassis, engine and everything else is kittens in a poke. The only thing that is known for sure – there are plastic elements: grille and headlights bezels. That’s a mysterious truck industry of the DPRK.

Well, nowadays Sungri Motor Plant like to copy Chinese trucks. They stole something from Foton, and something from Sinotruk, but there is no reliable information about these machines. Except the fact that some of them are equipped with American diesel engine, made in China – Cummins ISF3.8S. Without a hint of subtle trolling I can remind that the same engine was installed on GAZ-3309 until recently, and related Cummins ISF 2.8 engine of the same origin is on modern Gazelle Next.

There is more!

I will not put an end there yet: in automobile industry of North Korea there are many more interesting pages. White spots, unfortunately, are even more, but what can you do. And still we shall continue the topic. These comrades also have other trucks and other factories, some of which also produced funny cars. For example, the Mercedes-Benz 190 with an engine from the 21 Volga. In my opinion, this is more interesting than the “baby-benz” with 1UZ-FE, isn’t it?

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