DPRK bans use of foreign currency

According to ABC News:

North Korea has banned the use of foreign currency, another sign its hard-line communist government is intent on reasserting control over the country’s nascent market economy.

Reports say the decree warns of severe punishment for anyone using U.S. dollars, euros, yuan and other non-North Korean currencies. Foreign currencies previously were accepted in some shops, restaurants and other outlets, particularly those catering to foreigners.

The order, issued by North Korea’s state security bureau and going into effect Jan. 1, aims to “forbid the circulation of foreign currency,” China’s state-run CCTV television said in a brief report late Wednesday.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news outlet, said the order prohibits all individuals and organizations apart from banks from possessing foreign currency. It said the decree was posted in public and at workplaces, and went into effect Dec. 28.

There was no mention of the new ban Thursday in official North Korean state media. In Seoul, a South Korean official confirmed the ban, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media on intelligence matters.

The order comes weeks after the government redenominated North Korea’s currency, the won, as part of a far-reaching currency overhaul aimed at curbing runaway inflation and reasserting control over the economy.

The latest currency decree gives businesses 24 hours to deposit all foreign currency in banks. “When it is needed for trade, it can be withdrawn after obtaining approval,” it said, according to the Daily NK.

The ban is aimed at seizing foreign money tucked away by those still engaging in private market commerce, analysts said.

“North Korea has a problem with people trying to exchange their money for foreign currencies, and then storing the savings in their cabinets since they don’t know how the value of the local currency might change, said Jeong Kwang-min, a research fellow at the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.

The new ban shows the regime’s intention to “firmly” resolve and bring the black market under control, Jeong said.

“The ban is meant to root out people still trading at markets,” said Yang Moo-jin of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies. “More broadly, it’s aimed at smoothly completing the currency reform by restricting the use not only of local currency but also foreign currency.”

The latest ban also applies to foreigners, who must exchange foreign bills into North Korean won in order to purchase items, reports said.

Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, Mats Foyer, said by e-mail Thursday that he had received no official notification of the decree.

If this policy change does take effect, it will represent the republic’s third foreign exchange management regime.

Initially, the DPRK (like most communist countries) used Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) to control the circulation of foreign currency.  When foreigners arrived in Pyongyang, they changed their local money for FECs which could be spent in various sanctioned retail outlets. The DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank issued FECs which were different from local North Korean won (issued by the central bank) in both color and and purchasing power.  Capitalist Westerners received green FECs and expats from fraternal socialist governments received red FECs.  Coins were also differentiated.

Shopping could be a bit confusing, however.  Price tags could potentially hold three numbers: the green FEC price, the red FEC price, and the won price.  I believe that shops that catered to repatriated Japanese Koreans (such as the Rakwon Department Store near the Changwang Health Complex) were priced in actual yen, but it is possible these individuals were forced to exchange their yen into green FECs.  Expats from fraternal socialist countries reportedly complained because although their governments were underwriting the DPRK, the red FEC prices in department stores were often higher than the green prices.

As in China, FECs were eventually abandoned and hard currency shops and state-owned retailers began accepting hard currency directly. I am not sure how, why, or when this transition occurred, but it was in effect until this week.  Under this regime, tourists, diplomats, business persons and other visitors spent their dollars, euros, yen and yuan directly on goods and services in the DPRK, but the retail outlets in which they were allowed to make purchases were severely limited.  Prices were originally denominated in dollars but in 2004 they were changed to euros (though dollars remained just as acceptable).

Under this regulatory regime, most visitors to the DPRK could arrive and leave without ever seeing any local currency.  Some percentage of the foreign exchange undoubtedly ended up in KWP, KPA, and state coffers, however it is likely that quite a bit was skimmed off the top, legally or otherwise, in the process.  This would explain the shift to the new regime.

This third foreign currency management regime is interesting but not for the reasons cited in the media. In addition to striking a blow at the country’s markets, which it most definitely will, this policy brings all of the overseas trading companies operating under the protection of the KWP, KPA, and select ministries, under the indirect control of the Foreign Trade Bank. Whereas these organizations were previously allowed to hold some level of foreign currency on site for discretionary purposes, they will now be forced to deposit these funds in a Foreign Trade Bank branch or exchange them for won at the official rate. Additionally, all of the future earnings that these organizations generate abroad will need to be handed over for won when their agents return from assignments overseas.  It is highly likely that these companies will choose to keep their earnings overseas rather than repatriating them, or use their earnings to purchase cheaper goods which they can import into the DPRK (while pocketing the difference and keeping it in a foreign bank account).

The implications for tourists, visitors, and expats are also interesting.  This new policy would imply that the Korea Trade Bank will set up currency exchange kiosk at the airports, border crossings, retail outlets, and hotels for foreigners to swap their currency for local won.  Although we will have to declare our hard currency when entering the country, the fact that we are carrying local currency makes it easier for us to take advantage of spontaneous purchases–even potentially from private merchants and restaurants.  In other words, knowing that locals will not come into possession of hard currency, the North Korean government might give us more “economic freedom” in our time there.  Of course this is probably just wishful thinking.  The gap between the official and market exchange rate will also give rise to black market currency traders who will seek out foreigners to the best of their abilities.

Overall, it is difficult to see this policy as anything but a power grab.  Foreign exchange will become more difficult to obtain and so will the goods manufactured or grown overseas (including China). North Koreans will be left with fewer choices and as a result will  come under greater control of the state.  I am willing to believe that most North Koreans have enough sense to predict this outcome as well.  It will be interesting to see how well this policy sticks or whether entrepreneurial North Koreans will find ways to evade the new rules as they have done countless times before.

Additional Links:

1. Here is a link to the original ABC story.

2. Here is a wikipedia page about the DPRK’s monetary history.

3. Here is the Daily NK story mentioned above.

4. Here are previous posts related to the DPRK’s currency revaluation.

5. This Reuters article adds additional information.

6. Here is a report by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

7. Here is a rather humorous report on the “benefits” that the currency fiasco is bringing the North Korean people.


6 Responses to “DPRK bans use of foreign currency”

  1. Biff says:

    I once purchased NK currency (as souvenirs) in Dandong, right across the border from NK. The price I got was better than the official exchange rate (though probably somewhat lower than the black market rate in China). I wasn’t sure if the currency was real, but some surprised NK students in China confirmed that it was. If the black market price for NK won is tanking (As I understand) and foreigners will be able to use NK currency, it might make sense to take a trip to a place like Dandong and purchase NK currency for use in NK. If one could enjoy black market exchange rate prices in NK, it might actually be pretty cheap. I don’t know if the minders would turn you in for something like that… but it might be interesting. I don’t think you could get into much trouble in China for seeking out an exchange.

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