North Korean Officials Trade Meal Coupons on the Black Market For Cash

The coupons, issued to the country's elite, are then sold to ordinary citizens at twelve times their real value.

A dish of cold buckwheat noodles is served at a restaurant in Pyongyang, June 16, 2017.

North Korean party workers and other members of the country’s elite given coupons for meals at high-end restaurants in Pyongyang are now offering them for sale on the black market, earning instant cash and driving prices up for less-privileged residents of the capital, North Korean sources say.

Especially popular are coupons for meals at Pyongyang’s Okryu-gwan restaurant, which serves a well-known cold noodle dish, one source living in the capital told RFA’s Korean Service.

“However, famous restaurants like this and the restaurant at the Koryo Hotel are not easy places for the general public to visit if they don’t have the right family or social background,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Coupons for lunch at the Okryu-gwan, which serves an estimated 4,000-5,000 helpings of the restaurant’s coveted signature dish each day, are distributed each month to party officials, factory managers, and others rewarded by the government for their work, the source said.

“But these officials then sell their coupons to merchants on the black market, who offer them to the public at prices dozens of times higher than the national standard price,” he said, adding that coupons for dishes valued at 300 North Korean won (U.S. $0.04) can be resold for 10,000 won (U.S. $1.25).

Higher-ranking officials, who are often issued several coupons to distribute to lower-ranking workers—not just for Okryu-gwan but for other famous restaurants—often pocket these and sell them all, earning even more, the source said.

“And because merchants on the black market are protected by the officials, they can openly sell meal coupons right outside the restaurants,” he said.

Gaming the system

Also speaking to RFA, a second source in Pyongyang said that food supplies for the Koryo Hotel and high-end restaurants such as  Okryu-gwan and Chongryu-gwan are provided by the state, enabling party officials in the capital to “take advantage of the system” and confiscate meal coupons for their own enrichment.

“The [ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s] Central Committee says that these coupons for meals and beer demonstrate the state’s care for its workers, and that people should therefore be loyal to the party, but the people openly laugh at this,” he said.

Meanwhile, ordinary workers recognized as “outstanding” in the performance of their duties now receive only about one coupon each year, he said.

“And they say that people who buy meals on the black market with the money they earn on their own are smarter than those who wait for meal coupons to be distributed by the state,” he said.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.