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 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.
What currency will you use in North Korea?
Generally speaking, you will neither see nor use North Korean won in the DPRK, 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 euros, but cities closer to the Chinese border favour RMB. USD is also generally accepted – and even favoured in certain circumstances, such as taking a taxi or paying a hotel phone bill. Japanese yen was also, at least formerly, fairly easy to change in the port city of Wonsan.
North Korean money: can I buy it?
You can buy North Korean won at the official exchange rate of ₩215 – USD $1 in the hotel or at the Kwangbok Department Store. It’s illegal to take North Korean currency out of the country, and if you’re caught attempting to do so, it will be confiscated.
Rason is an interesting place for those interested in playing around with Korean money a bit more; not only can you exchange money at the black market rate there, but you can also spend won at the private markets – you can even buy 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 euro or RMB in small denominations, as getting change can be somewhat troublesome in North Korea. USD can also be used, but again – bring small denominations.