By Karthus Lee
Just being able to live in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang is a privilege and they keep it that way. A North Korean cannot just move, or even visit, Pyongyang without permission. And leaving Pyongyang requires a travel certificate. If someone from Pyongyang marries outside the city, the city resident has to leave, according to a Chinese media report.
As tourists, we were allowed no interaction with locals outside of the tour guides assigned to us. Which means, in North Korea, being a tour guide is a special job for people with the right family backgrounds.
One guide, good-looking and speaking fluent Mandarin, said her father was a high level government official.
“People have free love, and Pyongyang people usually marry Pyongyang people,” said the guide. “We girls have our own three criteria to pick boys: army, party, and university.”
Pyongyang’s 3 million residents enjoy a measure of wealth unheard of by the rest of the country. They dress smartly and use smartphones, though there is no access to the Internet. Our guide does not know how much her suit or her phone cost.
“My father bought them for me. The phone is a birthday gift,” she said.
Young women wear makeup and high heels. Another tour guide was seen using Christian Dior cosmetics in the washroom.
In 2009, the North Korean won was revaluated, which led to massive depreciation. Now a massive private market system using Chinese yuan and US dollars has sprung up out of the control of the government. Black market exchange rates are used instead of the official rate.
“Pyongyang people’s monthly salary is around 4,000 won” said a guide.
This is about US$ 42 a month, at the official rate of 96 won to the US dollar. On the black market though, it will fetch about US 50 cents, according to rates reported by Reuters.
When asked to show the North Korean won in her purse, the tour guide hesitated but finally agreed.
Tourists are not allowed to use the local currency. Souvenir shops only accept Chinese yuan and euros. The fixed rate for RMB is 15 to 1.
Tourists can buy a pack of old currency as s souvenir but it can’t be used.