While I am in the DPRK there will be very little that I will have to pay for. All expenses will be paid in full before I even arrive. I will have to pay for my own souvenirs and any extra food and drink. The publicity for the tour company makes it known that local beer is served with each meal (I am presuming that this doesn’t include breakfast) and that additional beers cost extra. This might be the only time in my life where I am given the opportunity to taste a North Korean brew so I hope my light-headedness when it comes to alcohol doesn’t render me flat-out drunken bonkers. Imagine the diplomatic nightmare if I should find myself drunk for the first time in my life in North Korea of all places.
There are no bank machines in the entire country and while credit card payments are in theory possible (with advance notification and in Pyongyang only), my travel company recommends that tourists bring in enough cash in hard currency to last the duration of the trip. It will not be necessary for foreigners to exchange their money into North Korean won (₩). Thus there is the possibility that I will not use or even see any North Korean money at all. I will be able to use euros, renminbi (Chinese yuan) or American dollars, however all prices for foreigners are quoted in euros. Since the smallest euro bill is for five euros, I am hoping to get my hands on a roll of euro coins so that I don’t have to keep paying 5€ for things, at the risk of not getting the proper change back (if any at all). My hope is that I will get coveted North Korean coinage or bills in return for euro purchases. Alternatively I could bring a wad of American $1 bills and use them. I did exactly that on my trip to Russia in 1999. One cannot barter in the DPRK, and even if this was the practice, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do it. How could I haggle to save a few euros, when I’m buying from a people who have practically nothing?
Pyongyang hotels are used to tourists asking them for souvenir currency, and in several travel blogs I have read of tourists asking the front desk and receiving crisp new won notes–for free. I will certainly ask for free money when I am at each of the Pyongyang hotels I will be staying at. I only wonder what kind of value this money is supposed to have. Perhaps the give-away money is only worth something depending upon who receives it. The DPRK produces or at one time produced three different kinds of currency. One kind is for use only by DPRK citizens; a second kind is only for foreigners from fellow socialist countries; and a third kind is only for use by foreigners from capitalist countries. Perhaps the “free money” that hotels would give me is socialist won versus capitalist won. In any case, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was printed on if it was being given away for free. I hope to receive some DPRK coinage from the refreshments vendors who dot the streets of Pyongyang. According to some blogs, tourists are allowed to interact with the vendors. There are other blogs, however, where the tourists report that the guides made all the purchases.
My only problem if I am so successful in acquiring North Korean money is how to get it out of the country. You’re not supposed to take it with you. Luggage is thoroughly searched as you enter the DPRK but less of an effort is made when you leave. Whatever I do, especially if I have North Korean chon coins, I should pack them. Any coins found in my pockets as I go through airport security will be confiscated.