Paper Money

New details arise on 'tonpyo' from North Korea

Conflicting reports have emerged about new notes issued in North Korea, with the latest stating that the notes are emergency money coupons.

Image courtesy of Asia Press.

Daily NK, a South Korean online newspaper focusing on North Korea, said on Sept. 28 that North Korea had recently issued new 5,000-won foreign currency vouchers.

Paradoxically, it added that very few people had seen or heard of them, and as a consequence, the journal questioned their utility, speculating that few people would be willing to use them.

By early November, several other South Korean news outlets also specializing in analyzing news from north of the border were able to clarify. The new notes are called “tonpyo” or “donpyo” and they are not foreign currency vouchers, but actually emergency money coupons, issued because Kim Jong-un’s government has such severe financial difficulties that it is unable to issue bank notes, the outlets say.

Rimjingang, an Osaka-based magazine that says it secretly operates with journalists and reporters hidden within North Korea, and a similar publication, NK News, both confirmed this, with the former claiming to have obtained “absolute secret” documents issued by the Workers’ Party of Korea in early October 2021.

The document blames the “health crisis” caused by the coronavirus for the problem. With the border closed, the regime could not issue regular bank notes, most probably because it could not import paper and ink from China. Therefore, the government began printing with domestic products. The tonpyo are 100% domestically produced, but the quality is awful, and the coupons, it says, look “like ordinary paper.”

A tonpyo has the same value as a regular 5,000-won note (about 55 cents), but distrust in the government is such that one clandestine reporter reflected the opinion of many, saying  “Who will believe the government when they say it is the same as regular money? We have been deceived so many times in the past. We’d rather barter.”

The secret internal document points out the emerging trend among residents to refuse to accept the tonpyo, saying, “Right now, there is a bias in the distribution process of the central bank ‘Tonpyo.’ Some merchant-grade nourishment institutions, markets, and residents refuse to accept the Central Bank ‘Tonpyo,’ claiming that they would be in trouble if the Central Bank does not exchange them for cash later and that the quality of the ‘Tonpyo’ is inferior to 5,000 won bills.”

If this admission is not fatal enough, it also says that coupons are already being discounted to 3,800 or 4,000 won.

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