The won is the currency used in North Korea, or more properly the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is properly known. It is issued for use by their central bank. South Korea uses its own version of the won.
The won is divided into 100 chon. There are a few coins denominated in chon, which are the 1, 5, 10 and 50 chon coins. There is also a further coin which is the one won coin. The country also uses several denominations of banknotes. These are the 5, 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 won notes. The symbol you will usually see representing the currency is a capital W with two horizontal lines (like tramlines) going through it.
The country used to use the Korean won but when the northern and southern parts of Korea divided, each half took on its own currency. North Korea adopted its own won on 6th December 1947 and has used it ever since.
There has been a couple of events in the life of the won that stand out. Firstly the won was originally pegged to the value of the US dollar. However this ended in 2001. Perhaps the biggest event was the revaluation of the currency which occurred in 2009. This led to much panic in the country, because the government put a limit on how much cash and savings could be exchange for the new valued currency. Many people living in the country saw the value of their savings severely eroded. While the government has denied that there were any problems with the revaluation, the facts seem to say otherwise.
If you have been keeping up with the news to any extent you will probably know that visiting North Korea is a troublesome affair. As such you may well have problems getting hold of the currency too. For starters you cannot get the currency until you are actually in the country itself. You can’t take any of it out either, although some people do attempt to smuggle the odd note out as a souvenir. Don’t expect to be able to exchange them when you get back home if you do decide to risk taking some home with you though!
While you might be tempted to take some home with you, you should be well aware that the officials in North Korea view this as smuggling – even if you are found to have just one or two notes. They take a very dim view of anyone doing anything that is out of step with the rules and regulations there. Foreigners have been held prisoner for less. So consider this very carefully and take it very seriously – otherwise you could find yourself in serious trouble.
In actual fact you should probably use the euro as your preferred currency to use if you need to pay for anything while you are there. The other main currency that is accepted from tourists is usually the Chinese yuan, but since the euro is easy to get hold of this is probably your best bet.
One final point – it is best not to bother bringing credit cards as they won’t be accepted anywhere. You can’t use them to take money out of cash machines either – if you are even lucky enough to find a cash machine in the first place.
You can do this by using a currency conversion tool. However as we have seen there is little point in researching this currency in the same way you would if you visited almost any other country in the world.
Normally in our articles this would be the point where we would share a link for the website of the embassy of the country in the UK. However, while North Korea does have an embassy – opened in 2013 – it is in the most unlikely place. This news link reveals more: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/shortcuts/2013/apr/08/north-korean-embassy-ealing-london. Furthermore no one is quite sure whether there is anyone there anymore, so the whole situation is rather strange. Of course given the situation in North Korea and the opinions of many people around the rest of the world, there would be no safe reason why you would want to go there anyway.
We have already established the currency is not the easiest to get hold of or even use once you do have some in your pocket in the country. However this is not the main concern if you are thinking of visiting the country.
Only a handful of people from the UK ever visit North Korea, simply because it is not a particularly good country to visit. There is the ever-present threat of nuclear strikes for starters, but there are also many other potential problems that could occur. This is not a country where you need to worry about other people picking your pockets or committing petty crime. It is a country where you need to be absolutely sure you do nothing to incur the interest or curiosity of any officials or military personnel. While we take freedom of speech and the freedom to move around as we wish – with rare exceptions – this is not the case in North Korea. You must accept if you go there that you will be expected to toe the line and pay due respect to both the current leader and all those that have gone before. If you do not you could end up with significant troubles.
By now you might be wondering why you would want to visit the country at all. Well it is immensely difficult to visit in the first place. North Korea is bordered to the south by South Korea and to the north by China. There is also a tiny section of the North Korean border to the farthest north-eastern part of the country that is shared with Russia. The Sea of Japan lies off to the east of the country, while Korea Bay is to the west.
Very few people visit North Korea for good reason. There is a strictly limited amount of travel you can undertake there. The only way you can get around is on an official tour. There is no chance of looking around or going wherever you want to go. So you have to consider whether or not you would want to go to this country anyway. It is a very secluded country and that’s why it sometimes gets called a hermit country. Those who are in control are very particular about the number of foreigners who visit the country. Furthermore they will only permit people to see certain things. It has often been reported that the tours show visitors what they want them to see, i.e. the bustling vibrant city of Pyongyang. Elsewhere the picture is very different, according to journalists who have managed to get into the country and report back on what they saw elsewhere. Generally speaking the North Koreans will not allow journalists into the country – and it is no big surprise to learn that really since they don’t want the North Koreans to realise what the rest of the world is like. They are very controlling of what their subjects see and what they know and don’t know.
If you do decide to visit you will need a visa and you might have to have a phone-based interview to confirm your identity before they will grant one. All tours are very carefully organised and orchestrated so you will only ever see what they permit you to see. While you are in the country you should never even consider being disrespectful to anyone in the Kim family or in any way towards the country. Even though you will probably vehemently disagree with the way things are done, you could get into serious trouble for even suggesting you go against their country. While there is consular assistance available for Brits in the country, it does not guarantee you will get out of trouble.
Perhaps not surprisingly it is wise to give very serious consideration to whether or not you would ever want to visit this country. Given the fact that we are granted freedom of speech and individuality at home, it is very difficult to go somewhere like this and toe the party line while you are there. The country has been accused of abusing human rights in many different and horrific ways. While an organised tour will get you in to see some of the country, it will not show you the real North Korea. This is something the military and those in charge do not want foreigners to see. So you have to ask whether it is safe and a good idea to go at all.