Though North Korean media have been highlighting the atmosphere of reconciliation that followed recent successful meetings between leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, authorities in the authoritarian state are carefully watching residents who have a taste for still-banned money and movies from the South, sources inside the country said.
Foreign-made products are prohibited in North Korea, but citizens manage to get their hands on coveted South Korean goods from relatives in China or from traders who obtain them in China and sell them in black markets back home.
But now — despite pledges by Kim and Moon to put their animosities aside and assurances that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula during breakthrough bilateral meetings — authorities have ramped up checks on those believed to possess contraband items from the South.
“A resident from Pohang district in Chongjin city was arrested by a police officer after he visited a relative in China for personal reasons,” said a source from North Hamgyong province who requested anonymity. “He was arrested because he had South Korean money that his relatives in China gave him.”
The man’s relative, who used to work in South Korea, gave him 100,000 South Korean won (U.S. $93) in notes as a souvenir, the source told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Given the atmosphere of inter-Korean reconciliation and the fact that there is now less criticism of South Korea [in the North], he bragged about the South Korean money that he had, and this got him into trouble,” he said.
“He considered South Korean money to be the same as general foreign currency just like Chinese yuan, so he simply bragged about his South Korean money to his friends, but someone reported him to the police,” the source said.
Agents arrested the man and interrogated him so intensely for a week that it seemed as though it was a form of torture, the source said.
Though the man said he had simply kept the money as a souvenir, police kept asking him why he had it in his possession and why he had bragged about it, he said.
“He was released after seven days of the investigation process because he had only a small amount of South Korean money,” he said. “If he had had a large amount of money, he might have been harshly punished as a political offender.”
Foreign currency, especially U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan, have long lubricated the isolated country’s struggling economy, which has undergone further blows from international sanctions imposed in 2017 and this year to punish the regime for nuclear tests and missile launches under its illicit arms program.
The Chinese yuan in particular has been the most readily available foreign currency and is brought in mainly by North Korean traders who live in areas bordering China.
The foreign notes offer currency stability and a means for the regime to enhance its coffers in a country whose native bills — North Korean won — are relatively worthless and used only by ordinary citizens for everyday transactions inside the country.
“Residents are not happy that South Korean money is considered a ‘puppet [regime’s] money’ and that the government cracks down on those who possess it, while U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan, and euros are commonly used,” the source said.
Doubts about state's intention
A source from Yanggang province told RFA about how people were talking about a 23-year-old college student who was recently caught with South Korean music saved on his laptop computer.
“He is about to graduate from a college of education and he got arrested for sharing South Korean music files from his computer with his friends,” said the source who declined to be named, adding that the man’s future now appears bleak.
North Koreans who are caught with South Korean movies and soap operas on USB drives or mini SD cards that have been smuggled into the country face imprisonment or even execution.
“People have doubts about the state’s intention with strict crackdowns on those who follow South Korean culture while they highlight inter-Korean reconciliation and a peaceful atmosphere,” he said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.