Motorcycling in Korea
               

Whenever Western expats and tourists are polled about some of the things they dislike most about living and driving in Korea, near the top of the list are almost always the country's motorcycle drivers. 'We' are seen as dangerous, reckless, rude and pretty much nuts. For the most part, this is probably true. A friend's funeral, hospital visits, and a good number of scars are some of the memories I have of biking in Korea.

On the flip side of that poll though, are the expats who actually ride bikes here in Korea. Ask me or any of the others about some of the things we like most about living in Korea and driving a bike is always near the top of our list. Why?

  • Traffic jams? A thing of the past
  • Crowded buses? Look real uncomfortable when I go by . . .
  • Subways? In the 10 minutes it takes me to get to the station I can be halfway across Seoul
  • Traffic laws? Uh . . . yeah. This boils down to "no harm, no foul" As long as you don't hurt anyone, the police are usually very understanding.
  • The actual driving? Fantastic! Racing video games, movie chase scenes . . . they've got nothing on the real thing.
  • Rain, snow and cold? Yeah, those kinda suck. Buy rain gear, a warm jacket, and hope for a dry winter.
               

Wan-do, Korea - Cheju Island to Seoul Trip

I have been riding in Korea since 1994, visiting places from the DMZ in the north to Cheju-do in the south, and I love it. It's a great way to zip around town or get away from it all on some back country roads.

This page is here to give background info to those of you thinking of getting a bike in Korea. Below you'll find a basic explanation of the bike buying process, my recommendations and some useful links.

               

The first thing you need to decide before buying a bike in Korea is domestic or imported. I'll start by taking a look at Korean bikes. The biggest Korean bikes these days are 250s (occasionally some are larger), with 125s being by far the most common. Obviously, not a lot of power, but the good points are price, maneuverability and ease of repairs. For about $800 (one million won or so . . .) you can get a decent used 125cc from Daelim or Hyosung, the two Korean bike manufacturers.

There are Daelim or Hyosung bike shops tucked away in most middle and lower class neighborhoods throughout Korea. Go to a few, ask about prices (most motorcycle 'auto-bike' vocabulary is, with some variations in pronunciation, the same in English and Korean. Even if your Korean is limited you should be ok), and size up the people you are dealing with. Owners of Korean bikes end up seeing a lot of their local mechanics (even with no problems there are oil changes every 500 kilometers), so choose a guy who seems trustworthy and open to dealing with foreigners. Look over the used bikes (never really found a good reason to buy a new one in this situation), find one you want and then start working him on the price AND other things like a helmet, decent mirrors, making sure he has the paperwork, etc. Most of the time they are open to mixing and matching from a couple of used bikes to make sure you get what you want, so take your time and see what kind of deal you can work out.

Once you settle on the bike and price, assuming you want a license plate and the bike in your name, you'll need the paperwork from the bike shop. This lists the brand, model, engine size, etc. of the bike, plus the former owner(s). You need to take it down to your local 'dong' or 'gu' office to get it switched over to your name. This can sometimes be painless, or it can take a whole day, depending on how well you speak Korean, how up-to-speed the government clerks are, if there are any tickets or paperwork irregularities with the bike (one reason to always go with a trustworthy bike shop even if the prices are a bit more), etc. You'll also have to pay a registration fee, insurance and a couple of other minor fees. The prices are based on how big the engine is and how much you paid for the bike. For 125s, the fees are quite cheap, well under 100,000 won. For bigger and more expensive bikes, prices get progressively steeper, but when filling out the paperwork (both between you and the place where you bought the bike, and at the government office) if you happen to accidentally put a smaller number down then, since no one ever checks, you might accidentally get away with paying less. You didn't hear that here though . . . (Yes, officer, my Harley really is a 400 . . .)

Once bought, getting your 'new' bike fixed when there's a problem (which is quite often) is amazingly cheap and easy. With Daelim and Hyosung each only making a few models, anywhere you go in Korea you'll find spare parts and experienced mechanics. The prices are uniformly low - an oil change is 5000 won and brakes, a new chain, etc. are all well under 50,000 won. You'll rarely be charged for anything more than the cost of the parts and quite often things (like checking and filling the air in your tires, greasing your chain, etc.) are provided free when you get an oil change. One important sidepoint to make here is that when you have a flat tire you need to go to a bike shop, not a gas station. Whereas most gas stations in the U.S. have free air, this is extremely uncommon in Korea and generally results in a very perplexed look when you ask. So save yourself the hassle and don't waste your time pushing the thing to a gas station.

Now back to the import vs. Korean bike question. I rode a 125 in Seoul for years (and still keep one as a back-up) and for city driving they're fine. Their small size makes them ideal for squeezing through tight spots that trip-up larger bikes. Plus, among the negatives to buying an expensive imported bike, is Korean law. Specifically the law banning all motorcycles from riding on the highway. According to the Korean government, the biggest, safest bike in the world is no match for some tapped-out old Hyundai Pony . . . Sure, you can sneak onto the main highways in and around Seoul, but speedy cross-country highway touring (or even driving out to the freaking airport) is basically out of the question. Toll gates at all major highway entrances will prevent you from going any further. This is when having a small bike isn't so bad - not being allowed on the highway is far less frustrating on a Hyosung than on a Honda. Another negative that applies to all bikes, but feels more frustrating on larger bikes, is the law requiring all bikes to stay in the right (and by far most-dangerous) lane. The idea behind this law is that bikes are too slow to keep up in the 'fast-moving' left lanes and should stay in the 'safer', slower-moving right lanes (with the zig-zagging cabs, buses, pedestrians . . .). Fortunately, this law is rarely enforced. Put these out-of-date laws and heavy traffic together and there are certainly logical things to be said for saving your money and just sticking with a smaller Korean-made bike.

               

That said though, I would never go back to driving a Daelim or Hyosung as my main bike. Aside from the power and speed benefits of owning a larger, imported bike is the night and day quality difference. I was forever taking in my Korean bike (I've owned both Hyosungs and Daelims) to get the lights, or the gauges, or the horn, or whatever, fixed. That plus an oil change every 500 kilometers and I felt like half my time was spent at the bike shop. It did wonders for my Korean, especially the cursing, but that's hardly the goal of bike ownership. Another thing is the chain on those things. I've had several snap or simply fall off. One preceded to wrap itself around the rear rim and lock up the tire . . . on a rainy day . . . at about 80kph . . . heading into a tunnel and with a bus right behind me. Why I'm not dead right now I'll never know, but that's the kind of 'excitement' you get with a Hyosung or Daelim.

One of the main things to keep in mind if you're thinking of buying an import is that your options become far more limited. Most smaller neighborhood shops would be happy to sell you a foreign bike, but it's been my experience that most of them have very little knowledge and training related to non-Korean bikes. I would make two recommendations. First, if you're in Seoul, hop on the orange or blue line and head to Chungmuro Station. This area, called 'Tway-gay-ro', is the home of imported bikes in Korea. Walk around, get an idea of the models available (the more common it is, the cheaper it is and the cheaper the parts are), and see what prices you get quoted. A lot of people buy bikes here, including myself and quite a few friends, and it's possible to get lucky and find a reputable place and a decent bike. It's also quite possible to get ripped off with fake paperwork, shoddy post-import modifications, huge upcharges on parts and maintenance, etc. Korean websites are filled with people swearing by, and swearing at, the merchants in this area. Definitely buyer beware.

So, Korean bike or imported bike, I hope reading this has proven useful and at least somewhat entertaining. If you have any questions related please feel free to contact me through the feedback page. Thanks.

Scott

 

To read more on biking in Korea try:

               
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FAQ

Q: How do I get a motorcycle license in Korea?

A: When it comes to riding legally in Korea you have two routes. If you already have a driver's license with a motorcycle endorsement, you can easily get an international driver's license that is also endorsed for motorcycles. You have to get the international license in your home country (for Americans you can just go to AAA), or go online from Korea. It's generally a simple, cheap process that will allow you to rent a car and drive just about anywhere in the world. Technically though, if you have Korean residency (i.e. a foreign registration card) this method isn't valid - legally you're supposed to get a Korean license. Of course, I've yet to meet the cop or car rental agent who is aware of this somewhat minor point - though it could become an issue if you cause an accident that injures someone and you have to go to court. So, method number one is to get an international driver's license endorsed for motorcycles before you come to Korea.

The other way is to get a full-on Korean license. With a foreign (car) driver's license, you can automatically get a Korean driver's license. You just have to show your passport, foreign registration card, and home country license at a Korean licensing office (call your district/'Gu' office to find out where the closest one is) and pay a small fee. This Korean driver's license allows you to ride any motorcycle up to 125cc (hence the popularity of 125s in Korea).

Anyone (foreign or Korean) who wants anything larger than a 125 though, has to get a separate motorcycle license. I never did this, but from what I hear it can be a pretty goofy process. First you contact your district ('Gu') office and find out when (usually a couple of times a month) and where the next bike licensing test will be. Once at the testing center, you will have to successfully navigate their bike around a small, parking-lot-sized course. You have one chance to do it and any mistakes mean you fail until the next test. 'Fail' can mean you touch your foot to the ground anytime during the trip around the course, go outside the lines, inadvertently go the wrong way, etc. You will have no get-acquainted time with the bike, which, from what I hear, is generally an old, clapped-out, lousy clutch, weak brakes, piece of junk. Which can obviously make things a bit challenging as you wind your way through the cones and around the course. Because the course layout can be unclear at first (especially if your Korean is not good enough to understand the directions), it's best to wait and let a few people go ahead of you so you can get an idea of which way to go, where to turn, etc., once out on the course.

Again, I've never taken the test, so I could be wrong, but numerous friends/sources have told me basically the same story over the years. If you take the test, I would love to hear how it goes and put any pertinent info on the site!

               
               

Other useful websites to check out:

               
               
               
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