When we ran a story a while back about the cars of North Korea, one photo in particular caught my eye. In that photo was a green 1974 Volvo 144, which made me wonder if it was part of those 1000 legendary stolen Volvos I'd heard rumors about. It was, because those rumors are true.
It's around the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest state-sponsored mass carjackings in history, a fact that Newsweek commemorated with an article last week. That article stated that the total amount owed for those thousand Volvos is now up to €300 million ($393 million US), or if you prefer Swedish Krona, a nice cool three billion or so. It's a lot of cash for a bunch of used Volvos, and I don't think anyone in Sweden really thinks they're ever going to see any of it.
The story goes like this: back in the late 60s/early 70s, North Korea seemed to be making remarkable economic growth and had a lot of potential mineral wealth opportunities. In Sweden, an unusual alliance of socialist groups who wanted the Marxist state recognized and capitalists who wanted to recognize a lot of cash from mining agreed that it would be a great idea to start doing some business with North Korea.
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Volvo was one of the first to take advantage of this incredible opportunity, shipping 1000 Volvo 144s to the Hermit Kingdom, along with, presumably, a bill which then-leader Kim Il-Sung promptly got a crack team of highly trained ignorers to forget about.
Incredibly, a large number (maybe nearly all?) of those Volvos are still around. Most seem to be in service as taxis around Pyongyang, and it's amazing just how often they pop up in photos and videos of the strangely-staged-feeling capitol.
Most also appear to be in really great condition, which isn't that surprising since cars of any sort are quite valuable in the country. The Newsweek article suggests that if you sold all the cars at their current market value of about $2600, North Korea would only be able to pay back 0.6% of their current debt. I actually don't think this is a reasonable calculation, since the cars are in generally really good shape and their status as one of the "North Korean" batch of Volvos should drive the price up. I bet they could get about $5000 per car, meaning they could cover well over 1% of that debt. I'm a glass half-full kind of guy.
I don't think Volvo's ever going to get their money back, but I think if they're smart, they'll use these circumstances for PR and advertising purposes. They need to convince Pyongyang that they'll quit sending those annoying twice-yearly bill notices (and probably stop calling North Korea's landline every week or so) in exchange for access into the country to film some commercials and other advertisements.
Cars that run for 40 years in an environment like North Korea, with bad roads, no real service network, and in hard-wearing jobs like taxis are certainly great cars to feature in ads showing how tough and well you company builds cars. Modern Volvo could use a little bit of the Old Volvo's rugged workhorse charm and personality, and these 1000 political prisoners are just the ticket.
Maybe even a special run of 1000 green "Pyongyang Edition" S60s? I think that'd be pretty cool. Think about it Volvo — this is as good as this deal gets for you.
Photos by Radcliffe Marxwell, Wikimedia Commons, Hooniverse, and Flickr