More on North Korea’s Great Confiscation

Rather than updating yesterday’s post again, I’ll just do a roundup of the reports and reactions today. So far, the reports point to widespread tension, disbelief, and shock, but little violence or unrest. It is as if the entire country has been paused, or as though a crowd that has just witnessed something horrifying is standing there, watching, too dumbstruck to take it in. For many, the means to live through this winter has been swept away in one casual, arbitrary diktat. It’s difficult to say where we go from here, and no one should pretend to know. Will there be famine? I don’t know, but the state clearly doesn’t care.

Here is the latest, via the Daily NK:

“The maximum amount per household which could be exchanged in cash was initially set at 100,000 won, but overnight it increased to 150,000 won, then subsequently a new decree was handed down.

“According to the new decree, the exchange rate is still 100:1 for 100,000 won, but now the authorities will only permit people to exchange the rest of the money at 1,000:1.

As a result, if you take 200,000 won in cash to a bank, you get 1,100 won in new denomination bills. This emergency formula will do nothing other than destroy the fortunes of the people.

Another source reported that in the jangmadang practical trading had ceased, although rice was still on sale from traders dealing in the product from home. The price of a kilogram has apparently skyrocketed to 30,000 won in old denomination bills, a 15-fold increase.

Wealthy merchants generally do their business in Yuan or U.S. Dollars, so the harm to them is not so serious. At the other end of the scale, low end traders who live from day to day will not be hit too hard for the simple reason that they don’t have much cash.

More here.

Good Friends reports on the tense quiet on the streets:

The streets of major cities, such as Pyongyang, Pyongsung and Sinuiju, are quiet as if they are under martial law. The only sound heard is detailed rules of the currency exchange, which is broadcasted every two hours, repeated three times each time. In markets, signs are posted saying, “Closed for a week.” On the day the currency revaluation started, city dwellers went to countryside to purchase things, assuming that people in rural area would not have learned the news.

In Sinuiju, school teachers even left classes and rushed to rural areas to buy rice on bicycles. Farmers were first excited that a crowd of city residents would buy a bowl of rice paying as much as 30,000 won, but soon their excitement turned into disbelief after learning about the revaluation.

Some more reports:

  • The New York Times speaks of “street protests” in Pyongyang, but doesn’t cite the sources that claim that. Otherwise, it is consistent with reports of widespread shock, anger, and chaos.
  • The Chosun Ilbo rounds up some of the speculation about why Kim Jong Il did this. Let me add some of my own: he’s a black-hearted asshole.
  • The AP reports that state-run shops are closed for a week.

Notable reactions:

  • Nicholas Eberstadt says the regime has just picked the pockets of its citizens.
  • Marcus Noland: “This is the kind of pocketbook issue that could set off protests,” he said, though added that given the absence of a civil society in the country any unrest would ultimately pose no danger to the regime.

Well, not immediately, anyway. But I suspect that for many North Koreans, this will shift them from “disillusioned” to “dissenting.” This will create a rebellious predisposition among many North Koreans, although that’s a predisposition that will go unharnessed until an effective opposition movement takes shape.


  1. I guess if anyone had doubts about the regime’s ability to control information, they should be under no illusions now.

    Imagine, except for the elite (which, I gather has thier wealth in dollars or other currency), the overwhelming bulk of the rest of the country had absolutely no idea it seems.

    Don’t know whether to be impressed, or cry.


  2. 1…How do you bribe someone in non-existent money? Local policemen, train inspectors, work supervisors and all the minor officials expected small gifts. They’ve now disappeared when small bills disappeared. An unhappy minor officialdom.
    2…How does one pay the military? Their salaries can’t increase because that would fuel inflation. An unhappy soldiery.
    3…Doesn’t this mean that the economy is back to Bartertown? Except there’s nothing to barter either. The harvest was disrupted by the forced work schedules of the last four months. An unhappy mercantile and farming community
    4…A “reform” that alienates all soldiers, all market traders, all minor officials and all farmers doesn’t mean revolution, but it does mean misery and (we can hope) a loss of faith in the leadership as a whole.
    5…The fat cats are getting fatter since the real and counterfeit US and Chinese currency has just gone up massively in value. Now wouldn’t it be nice if we could identify and publish exactly who in the hierarchy just multiplied his assets?


  3. Thanks for the updates, Joshua. I wrote an update that links back to this and then ends with me babbling about tipping points. It’s too disjointed to link back to here. 🙂


  4. A great follow-up to an otherwise intriguing story.

    Is this the tipping point? No, not yet. People have been getting by without money for many decades. These ‘wealthy merchants’ are smarter than trusting the NK government, although I wonder how many people could actually be called ‘wealthy’…

    What does it take to start a rebellion? Organization, willingness, and nothing to lose… I’d say the second and third are there, although the first could take some time…