Ordinary North Koreans are illegally buying highly sought-after lapel pins of the reclusive country’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il and using them in lieu of cash to pay for accommodations, meals and drinks, sources inside the country said.
Low-level administrators who work for North Korea’s Workers’ Party and judiciary, university students, and members of the middle class who have money to buy the rare “double-portrait” pins are obtaining them illegally in local markets.
“With the double-portrait [lapel pin], people can take care of one day of room and board in other regions [of the country] or drink with their friends by using it when they need money,” said a source in Yanggang province, which is bordered by China to the north.
“In a restaurant or [when paying for] accommodations, the double-portrait is worth 20 Chinese yuan (U.S. $3.20),” he said.
Two Kims better than one
The double-portrait lapel pins with pictures of the two former leaders are popular among North Koreans because they symbolize the country’s social hierarchy, another source in Yanggang province said.
“There are more than 10 kinds of badges with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that North Koreans are obliged to wear,” he said. “The double-portrait, which is illegally trading in North Korean local markets, costs 40 yuan (U.S. $6.40) in Chinese money. This is a high price.”
The Workers’ Party gives the pins to high-ranking executives and military leaders, but not to ordinary citizens who usually wear pins with a single portrait of Kim Il Sung.
The double-portrait lapel pins appeared after the December 2011 death of Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
They quickly became a desired item as ordinary citizens sought to buy them so they could feel as though they were part of the country’s social hierarchy, sources said. Kim Il Sung, who founded the North Korean state in 1948, died in 1994.
But the growing supply of pins, whose sale is banned in the country, has pushed down prices from a high of 130 yuan (U.S. $21) when they were first sold in 2012 to 40 yuan, sources said.
Still, North Koreans refer to the double-portrait lapel pins as “nest eggs” because they can replace money to purchase goods or services, one of the sources said.
People who travel to other regions of the country used to carry about one gram of the addictive stimulant drug methamphetamine as a “nest egg” in lieu of cash to pay for items or services, he said.
But when a strict crackdown on methamphetamine made it difficult for them to continue doing this, they started using double-portrait lapel pins instead, he said.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.