SEOUL—North Koreans who can afford to save their money are ignoring a new currency brought in by the ruling Workers' Party in the isolated Stalinist state in favor of the more trusted renminbi yuan from China.
"Our [North Korean] money is now called ‘the commoners’ currency,’ used only as a means of exchange when goods are purchased, but not as a means of saving," a resident of Chungjin city in the northern province of Hamgyeong said.
"North Koreans [still] hold their savings in Chinese money," the resident said.
On the country's black markets—the chief source of essential goods for many under a planned economy in which products are scarce and often monopolized by the country's elite—any buyer offering to pay in yuan can expect a large discount, residents say.
"Nowadays even children look for Chinese money, knowing that a hefty discount may be available if Chinese money is used in an exchange," another source said, speaking during a visit to relatives in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, which borders North Korea.
The renminbi—known in North Korea simply as "B"—is strongly preferred to the local currency, as it can buy anything, the second source added.
North Korean authorities including the state security department claim to be cracking down on the use of the yuan for transactions, he said.
"But because high-ranking officials are the first to hold their savings in Chinese money, the implementation of such crackdowns is half-hearted at best, and mostly ineffective," the source said.
"North Korean officials won’t even touch the domestic currency."
Other sources said they fully expect the North Korean currency to collapse once enough yuan are in circulation to fuel the country's black markets.
"It is obvious that the North Korean currency will collapse once more money enters circulation," a third North Korean said.
That source, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said the apparent stability in the North Korean currency is an illusion caused by the fact that not enough money is in circulation for it to devalue domestically.
The tight money supply partly results from nonpayment of salaries by the government, the country's only official employer.
"In Sinuiju, only 25 percent of the people have received their salaries," the third source said.
"Workers and those employed at manufacturing facilities received the appropriate pay only during the month after the currency reform was implemented, and then started missing paychecks," the third source said.
The South Korea-based Web site "Daily NK," which publishes North Korean news, said North Koreans who use domestic currency, rather than Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, have to pay about 10 percent more for their purchases in open markets.
North Korea issued its revalued won last December, dropping two zeroes off the old won.
At the time, the North Korean central bank put strict limits on the amount of old money that could be exchanged for the new won.
At the old rate, U.S. $1 was equal to 135 North Korean won.
The move sent shockwaves through North Korea, with reports of citizens rushing to black-market moneychangers to cash in their won for more stable U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan.
North Korean citizens were threatened with "merciless punishment" for defiance of the new currency rules and were told they had only a week to exchange a maximum of 100,000 won (U.S. $690 at the official rate, but less than U.S. $40 according to black market rates) per person of the old currency for new bills.
NGOs in Seoul reported that in response to widespread anger, those limits were raised to 150,000 won in cash and 500,000 won in bank notes.
A leading expert on the North Korean economy has said that the economic system is split between the concerns and needs of ordinary North Koreans and the country's political elite, which runs a "royal palace economy."
Kim Kwang Jin, visiting researcher with the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said the scale of Kim Jong Il's "royal palace economy" is in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year, while the much less significant "people's economy" doesn't exceed a few million dollars a year.
Original reporting in Korean by Sung Hwi Moon. Korean service director: Myungsoo Kwak. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.