Unofficial and official exchange rates in North Korea: how big is the gap?

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Photographer Jaka Parker, who lives in Pyongyang and runs a highly popular Instagram page with everyday life pictures from Pyongyang, recently photographed a table showing the official exchange rates of the North Korean won to several major currencies, including the US dollar and Chinese yuan. Mr. Parker has been kind enough to allow North Korean Economy Watch to publish his photographed table, seen here below:

Official exchange rates of the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK. Photo credits: Jaka Parker.

Official exchange rates of the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK, January 28th. Photo credits: Jaka Parker.

It is interesting to note how these rates compare to unofficial market exchange rates gathered by Daily NK. Their latest data covers the period of January 7th-13th, so these two sets of figures may not be fully comparable. However, they at the very least give an interesting indication of the difference between the official and unofficial rates. Below are the $1-prices at unofficial market rates given in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan according to the latest available information (in North Korean won):

  • Pyongyang: 8190
  • Sinuiju: 8260
  • Hyesan: 8190

As Mr. Parker’s picture shows, the $1-price at the unofficial rate (in Pyongyang) was 109.60 won on January 28th. This would suggest that the unofficial USD-rate is roughly 80 times higher than the official one.

Compared with data from 2011, the discrepancy between the official and unofficial rates is significantly larger today. In 2011, the unofficial rate was $1 = 3,000 won, and the official one at $1 = 100 won. Since then, the unofficial won-rate has depreciated significantly against the dollar. (which has essentially flattened out since 2013: see graph below, based on price data from Daily NK and put together by the present author). In other words, while unofficial rates have soared, the official USD-to-won-rate has essentially stayed the same.

Inofficial market exchange rates over time, Won for USD. Data source: DailyNK. Graph created by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.

Unofficial market exchange rates over time, Won for USD. Data source: DailyNK. Graph created by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.

That’s a snapshot of late January. However, Mr. Parker has also generously allowed me to publish other pictures he has taken of exchange rate tables at institutions in Pyongyang. Below is a quick look at a few exchange rate figures from last year, with rough comparisons to the corresponding black market exchange rates (all figures for the unofficial market come from Daily NK and I include the rate in Pyongyang only). Note how smaller currencies like the Swedish krona (SEK) can be exchanged by North Korean institutions.

January 8th, 2015: USD selling at 109.520 won at the Foreign Trade Bank. Closest available unofficial data puts the USD at 8190 won – same as above.

North Korean won exchange rates as of January 8th, 2016. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of January 8th, 2016. Photo: Jaka Parker.

November 24th, 2015: $1 for 111.050. Black market rate: 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 24th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 24th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

November 9th, 2015: $1 selling at 110.57 won. The closest available unofficial rate was recorded between October 21st-27th: $1 for 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

October 29th, 2015: $1 for 109.550 won. Closest available black market rate: 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of October 29th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of October 29th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

September 28, 2015: $1 for 108.29 won. Closest available black market rate: 8260 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of September 28th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of September 28th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

One clearly visible trend is that both the official and unofficial exchange rates steadily climb throughout the fall, but decline in January. It’ll be interesting to continue following them over the course of the year.

 

 

 

 

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