All You Need To Know About North Korean Currency (KWP, Won)
North Korean currency; probably one of the rarest currencies outside North Korea.
Because it’s illegal to take out of North Korea. This means that few have heard about North Korean money, even fewer have ever seen it, and fewer still have ever used it. Not to mention the very few people outside North Korea that own some North Korean currency..!
So what’s the big secret about? What does North Korean currency look like, and why is it not possible to take it outside the country?
North Korean Won to USD
North Korea uses the KPW or Korean People’s Won. (KPW, 원). For purposes of this blog, we’ll call it North Korean Won, since South Korean Won also goes by the name of ‘Korean Won’ – which really can get confusing.
The official exchange rate of North Korean Won to USD is;
1 USD to KPW = 899.9 North Korean Won
(XE Currency Converter, Feb 2021)
It’s important to note that this is the official exchange rate that you’ll find online. It’s the exchange rate used in tourist shops in North Korea simply to convert from North Korean Won to USD/EUR/CNY (the currencies foreigners use in North Korea – more on that in a bit) and for tourists when a normal shop is charging you for your items. These are basically the only purposes of this “official” exchange rate since, in practice, North Koreans all work on a different ‘market rate’, or ‘black market rate’ if you want it to sound a bit more glitzy. I only don’t use the term ‘black market’ here since there’s nothing ‘black’ about it, as it’s the only real rate in the country that is used.
How much is the market rate?
Absolutely nothing compared to the official rate. Previously it has always stuck around 1USD = 8,000 KPW, but recently it has been fluctuating to something more like 6,000 KPW = 1USD.
In December 1947, the North Korean Won became the official currency of North Korea. Initially, this currency wasn’t permitted for foreigners to use at all, but this has since changed (see below).
The official name in Korean is 조선민주주의인민공화국 원
‘원’ reads as ‘Won’ (i.e. Korean Won).
North Korean currency comes in the following dominations, with 5,000 being the highest note;
In 2009, the North Korean Won was revalued and went under a bank reform – which had a devastating effect throughout North Korea. Koreans were told that they had just 7 days to change their money – and they could only exchange less than 50 USD per person. This obviously wiped most of the savings people had and created a bit of unrest in the country. This 50 USD was raised a little, but in the end, a lot lost out.
The image on each of the notes of North Korean currency illustrates political ideologies, important people, areas, or landmarks in North Korea. As well as this image, each banknote also has a North Korean Coat of Arms in the top left-hand corner.
The images then all have the number of the value on both sides, and all come in various different pastel colors.
The new 5000 note came out a few years ago. Previously, it featured an image of Kim Il Sung. However, the new note features a different landmark.
North Korean Currency FAQs
Can Foreigners Use North Korean Currency?
Yes… But also, no.
When foreigners go to North Korea, they use different foreign currency (see below). So normally, it is not allowed for foreigners to use the official North Korean Won. There is, however, one place where you are permitted to use it if you are on a tour in North Korea; the Kwangbok Supermarket. This is a local DPRK supermarket and therefore doesn’t accept foreign currency; only local North Korean Won.
What Currency Do Foreigners Use in North Korea?
So if foreigners don’t use North Korean Won, how do they buy stuff in North Korea?
In a country where there are no ATMs or forms of cyber-payments (e.g. Apple Pay), cash is necessary to carry around. In any shops, restaurants or areas you visit in North Korea, you will be able to spend any of 3 different foreign currencies;
Chinese Yuan (CNY), US Dollars (USD), and Euro (EUR).
Sometimes, some places will accept different currencies, too, but this is not guaranteed.
Where to Get North Korean Currency
If you need to exchange your cash for North Korean Won for use in North Korea, you’ll probably only be doing this in the Kwangbok Supermarket.
In the Kwangbok Supermarket, there is an exchange booth where you can exchange your currency into North Korean Won. The exchange rate here is based on the market rate and fluctuates frequently. The prices are listed on the front of the booth.
Currency you can exchange here includes; Japanese Yen (JPY), Chinese Yuan (CNY), US Dollars (USD), and Euro (EUR).
If you’re not buying North Korean currency for use in Kwangbok Supermarket, but instead want to bring it home with you, it is available to buy in sets in tourist shops. Here you can buy various different sets including coins – but you can’t use this currency as it is not in circulation, but simply made for collectors packs.
WHY is it Illegal to Take Out?
The big question… That no one really knows for sure.
Some speculate that it is because there is the image of Kim Il Sung on one of the old version 5000 notes. Others say that it is similar to other old Eastern Bloc countries. Some say it’s to keep track of the notes and so that North Korea doesn’t run out…
But in reality, no one knows the real reason. There probably isn’t one. Just North Korea being mysterious again.