How much does it cost?

Thursday 7th May, 2015

The question is not so simple in North Korea.


A corn refinery in Changjin country, North Korea/New Focus

A corn refinery in Changjin country, North Korea/New Focus

Whether in a department store or a market, consumers in South Korea always ask the value of a product by asking the following question: “How much is it?” In addition, the words are uttered regardless of the position or status of speaker. But in North Korea, asking for the price of something is not so simple.

Primarily, the question that North Koreans ask is not, “How much is it?” but rather, how much of what?

In North Korea, different people have different ways of asking for the cost of a certain product. Economically advantaged elites and overseas businesspeople trade by the dollar. Phrases such as, “This product costs ten dollars” or, “If you want to do that, it will cost x many dollars” are commonly used. Goods and services expressed by the dollar often indicate a higher value in the product, which is usually why the expression is limited to use by only elites.

The middle class, on the other hand, use Chinese currency (yuan) to prove a product’s worth. The North Koreans use the term bi, for instance, “That house is worth bi 5000 Won”. Being able to express the value in Chinese money shows that the speaker has worked hard and has, as a result, been able to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

However, the most commonly used term between North Korean citizens as a measure of wealth is corn. One frequently hears expressions such as, “That is worth x kilograms of corn”. Corn is used as a measurement even for extravagant objects such as property or cars – “That house is worth x tonnes of corn”. Regardless of the value of the object, this counter for measurement remains the same for most North Korean citizens.

Rice is not a commonly used form of currency in North Korea. The reason for this is because rice is considered a luxury, usually reserved for special holidays. If people receive rice, most sell it at the markets in exchange for corn and cheaper grains. Therefore, corn is commonly used as both the North Korean people’s staple and money. Other forms of currency indicate higher levels of wealth, or worth, in both products and people.


Reporting by Seo, Young-Seok.

Translation by Susie Lee.

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