How I was introduced to capitalism – the North Korean way

Three currencies in 1980s North Korea allowed foreigners to spend money in sometimes surprising ways
April 8th, 2014
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After living in North Korea for 15 years, adapting to capitalism when I first arrived in the West was difficult. I simply wasn’t used to looking after myself or managing my own budget. It’s difficult going from living in a communist country – where the state looks after almost every aspect of your life – to a capitalist one, where you have to fend for yourself. So, although the abundance of goods amazed me when I arrived in Spain in 1994, the little money Kim Il Sung gave me before I left Pyongyang meant that after it was spent, I had no money.

Why was I not ready to manage my own finances? My life in North Korea was very organized – everything is worked out for you, for your whole life. And, in contrast to capitalist societies where spending cash is easy to understand, back in North Korea in the 1980s, we had a complicated three-tier currency system for different sectors of society: local, red and green money.

Though this has changed now, green bills were mainly used by foreigners looking to buy goods in places like the Pyongyang diplomatic shop, the Rakwon department store and at the luxury hotels – where you could often buy imported products from Japan. To get hold of the green money to make these purchases, visitors and long-term foreign residents would have to exchange premium currencies like the U.S. dollar, British pound or Japanese yen.

“We could spend the red bills at places like diplomatic shops, some hotels, the discotheque, and gym”

But if you had Chinese renminbi or Russian rubles, things were different. You’d have to exchange those currencies for the red bills, which incidentally was what I and the other foreign students used most often. We could spend the red bills at places like diplomatic shops, some hotels, the discotheque, and gym.

If you arrived in Pyongyang with U.S. dollars, the exchange office would give you green bills; if you changed Chinese Yuan, you’d get red ones. All the diplomats used to bring U.S. dollars into the country with them, but sometimes they wanted to buy things like Korean art, ceramics, and so forth at the No. 1 Department Store in Pyongyang – where only local money and red money was accepted. So, students used to save their red money to exchange for green money with diplomats.

During my time in Pyongyang, all foreign students received 80 won a month. This was pretty good money, especially since we didn’t have to worry about paying bills, rent, or for food, so if you ran out of money you just didn’t have anything for personal entertainment.

“We didn’t have to worry about paying bills, rent, or for food, so if you ran out of money you just didn’t have anything for personal entertainment”

Foreigners in Pyongyang used to go to the discotheque, a pastime we adopted from the westerners living there. We could buy Korean beer for five won, and soju and makgeolli, of course! We could also get Japanese whiskies and sake, which were extremely expensive. At that time, the Changwangsan hotel’s 18th-floor disco (with its own terrace) was our favorite place – many spontaneous romances flourished on that terrace.

A lot of my money went toward buying material to make my own clothes. It was very hard for me to find clothes that fit, since they were generally made in Asian sizes. Shoes were especially difficult to find – up until high school, I’d wear adult sized shoes. Luckily, I had a cousin who worked as an Ambassador in Beijing, and he used to send me shoes and clothes from there. But even then, they were often too small! My friends liked shopping too; women are the same no matter where you go. One friend, a classmate of my sister’s, was very beautiful – she spent all her money on make-up and cosmetics.

“A lot of my money went toward buying material to make my own clothes as it was very hard for me to find clothes that fit, since they were generally made in Asian size”

I did occasionally run out of money. One day I got into real trouble – I decided to take a taxi to the city of Nampo, which is about 220 kilometers south of Pyongyang, to visit a friend. I didn’t tell anyone but my sister I was going.

I called a taxi in Pyongyang, and told the driver to drive me to Nampo, which would normally have cost 200 won. I managed to haggle it down to 80 won, which was all the money I had, so I got to Nampo and had nothing left to get back with. When my teacher found out, she was furious – the university had to pay for my taxi ride back, and I had nothing for the rest of the month. I was so irresponsible!

It took me months to adapt to capitalism in Spain and find work. At first, I wanted to go back to North Korea, it was too much for me, way too different. I really thought that I could not survive under this system. But I eventually adapted, got myself a job, and began to save up money to visit countries like the US and South Korea. That was what helped me survive and opened my mind: I had a goal, I wanted to find out the truth by myself–not to just believe what others told me. It took ten years, but I finally did it. I was lucky that I’d studied clothes-making in North Korea and had a skill. I’d originally wanted to be a singer, but Kim Il Sung had told me that I needed to have a skill, something I could use when I left North Korea to make money.

“It took me months to adapt to capitalism in Spain and find work. At first, I wanted to go back to North Korea, it was too much for me”

New York was amazing, so dynamic and exciting and beautiful, completely different from what I imagined. There were so many different kinds of people, and such a wide range of opinions. One day I went shopping with a South Korean friend – there was so much choice. We went to a department store and chose all the clothes we wanted, only to realize we didn’t have enough money to by it all! We realized that consumption without self-control could be dangerous! But I could finally get shoes that were the right size for me!

Picture: Monique Macias

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About the Author

Monique Macias

Monique was born in Equatorial Guinea and grew up in Pyongyang, North Korea. She graduated at the University of Light Industry, with a BA as a Textile Engineer. Since leaving North Korea, Macias has been working as a fashion designer in countries including Spain, South Korea, and the U.S. Macias recently wrote a book about her life in North Korea which will soon be translated in to English.


Join the discussion

  • Andres

    A very interesting point of view, it shows how life was different for the well-educated north koreans.