October 04, 2023

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

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.