We recently did a blog on the currencies of Cuba – a complicated topic, but a complicated topic that, at least, deals with only two kinds of currency. In North Korea, money gets even more complicated than that!
North Korean money: the won
Let’s get the simple parts out of the way: the official currency of North Korea is the Korean won, with the currency code being KPW. The KPW was made the official currency of North Korea on December 6th 1947, when it replaced the Korean yen.
Since the inception of the won there have been three incarnations, the second of which was pegged (officially, at least) to the US dollar.
The latest – and current – incarnation of the won was brought about as a result of a 2009 revaluation of the currency. This revaluation was to prove extremely controversial and contentious.
The won during the Soviet era was particularly interesting, however; visitors from different countries would be given differently-coloured won at different exchange rates. Visitors from ‘socialist’ countries would have their currency marked with a red stamp, whilst capitalist dogs got a green stamp. This was not dissimilar to pre-reform China, which had a similar system up until the 90s.
So why are North Korean group tours priced in euros? This is due to the command economy of North Korea. Socialist countries have ‘soft’ currencies (in North Korea’s case, the won) that cannot be exchanged with ‘hard’ currencies (such as GBP, USD or EURO). This means that socialist countries need a way of generating foreign ‘hard’ currency in order to trade internationally. In North Korea, the euro was chosen over the more expensive, hard-to-get USD.
North Korean Old Currency & North Korean New Currency
During your stay in North Korea you will see two DPRK won currencies. The old currency mentioned above is available to buy at souvenir stores as a collection in a nearly presented folder. Coins starting from 1 Won up to a 5000 Won note. Buying this in Korea will mean being 100% certain it is legit. Buying this folder in China, most commonly found in the Chinese border town of Dandong will most likely be fake and copied prints of the notes.
The new currency is currently being used in North Korea. For more information and information about how to get North Korean currency continue reading below.
What currency will you use in North Korea?
Generally speaking, you will not use North Korean won in the DPRK during your stay except at the Kwangbok Department Store and Kwangbok Supermarket which you can read more about here, despite it being the national currency. Instead of the red/green stamped notes of the 80s, foreigners now pay for things in hard currency. Most places accessible to foreigners price things in Chinese RMB or euros, but cities closer to the Chinese border favour RMB and do not accept euros. The $1 US bills are seen floating and used for exchange throughout the country but anything above $5 USD will be tricky to spend and receive USD change for. Japanese yen used to be the chosen currency in the eastern port city of Wonsan but as Japanese tourism died down in the 90’s so did the demand for the Yen.
North Korean money: can I buy it?
You can buy North Korean won at the unofficial exchange rate of 1 euro to ₩8000 or 1 Chinese RMB to ₩1,100. It is not permitted to take North Korean currency out of the country. If it is found the immigration officers will politely inform you it’s not allowed and you will need to give it to them. Best way to avoid this is to hide the currency in your luggage. It’s a great gift for friends and family back home. We at YPT like to include it into Christmas cards to friends!
Rason is an interesting place for those interested in playing around with Korean money a bit more; in this Special Economic Zone you can spend won at the private markets – you can even create a bank account and receive a North Korean debit card! It obviously can’t be used outside the country, but it makes for a cool souvenir.
What currency should I bring to North Korea?
Our general advice is to bring RMB or Euro in small denominations, as getting change can be somewhat troublesome in North Korea. USD can also be used, but again – bring small denominations. For a full guide on how much to bring to North Korea you may follow the link.