North Korea hits the headlines yet again in several foreign news outlets. The 5000 won bill design is without the image of Kim Il-sung – the Great Leader, the Eternal President of the Republic and the founder of the Republic.
Such developments have caused widespread speculation and analysts remain divided. Some see similarities with the Soviet De-Stalinization process and the possibility of economic reforms, others, however, see this as Kim Jong-un clearing the path for himself by removing his grandfather’s image from the bill.
The author, however, is reminded of the affair ten years ago when two large portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on a government building in the center of Pyongyang were removed and sent for restoration. The “Stonefish Rule” came into effect as usual and the headlines in the foreign media mainly read: North Korea removes portraits of its leaders.
Such newsworthy developments have to be verified starting from the information source. The source once again was the South Korean newspaper The Choson Ilbo, a rightwing, conservative mainstream newspaper and one of the most popular, although having a tough anti-North Korean stance. The newspaper has been accused before of spreading false information and one recent famous occasion was an article about the fatal shooting of a popular North Korean singer Hyon Song-wol, outlined in a most heart-breaking manner. Six months later, however, the singer appeared in public.
In its article dated August 11, 2014 the newspaper, as always, bases its information on an obscure North Korean source which reports that the image of Kim Il-sung’s birthplace (Mangyongbong) will appear on the bill instead of the Great leader himself. The source also claims that the announcement on July 25, 2014 of the issuing of new banknotes gave rise to fears about a next wave of currency reform, and people rushed to buy products which saw their prices soar.
It is worth mentioning that after the currency reform in 2009, the 5000 won bills were the only ones which had the image of the leader. Previously, he was to be found on 1000 and 2000 won denominations in the middle of the bill just like an image of the president on a US dollar bill. But after 2009 Kim Il-sung’s image remained only on bills of higher denomination and was shifted to the right. One reason for this was not to make a fold line on his face when folding the bill in half, considered to be an act of sacrilege. For the same reason newspapers in North Korea are not thrown into the rubbish bin, but are gently laid out.
A previous publication about new banknotes of the same newspaper contradicts the information of the latest publication. According to the former publication of The Choson Ilbo dated July 31, 2014, based on anonymous Chinese sources, the banknotes had already been issued and were in circulation, and had the images of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It was also specifically stated that currency reform was out of the question and that the changing of the design had more political significance.
In the article, The Chosun Ilbo shows the image of what is claimed to be the new bill. The image there of a house in Mangyungbong is the same as the one on the old-style bill, where it was displayed at the back (the front-side of the bill showed the portrait of Kim Il-sung). But the new bill has a different colour composition and the so-called coupon area (the white area of the bill without any images intended for viewing the watermark) is not located on the right, but on the left, which is typical for the front-side of North Korean banknotes. The second side of the new banknote was not shown.
However, as the author is concluding this article, neither the government news agency Yonhap, nor any other independent sources in South Korea have confirmed the news about the new banknotes. This means that until another news source writes about this, I am prepared to consider this as a newsworthy event, not as a hard fact.
There are several opinions about what might be behind the banknote reforms if they really took place. One viewpoint indicates standardization: on 1000 and 2000 won denominations depicted were the birthplaces of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-suk (mother of Kim Jong-il and wife of Kim Il-sung). The other viewpoint recalls the line of A. Voznesensky: “Take Lenin off the banknotes, his price is high” and points to the fact that it is not so much the weakening of Kim Il-sung’s personality cult, but an attempt to consolidate it by removing the link between the leader and filthy lucre.
There is also a very interesting third point of view which states that the new design of the banknotes was a necessary measure since North Korea has a lot of high-quality fakes of the 5000 won denomination circulating about. According to some experts, so many of them were in circulation that it was time to think about the likelihood of deliberate sabotage against the North Korean market.
It is worth recalling that the printing of counterfeit money during the war was widely carried out by different countries, and instantly rejecting this version may not be worthwhile, especially since the first outbreak of disorder in North Korean markets due to the influx of counterfeit 5000 won denominations took place two years ago. The then President of South Korea was President Lee Myung-bak characterized by a tough anti-North Korean stance. Today, even The Chosun Ilbo is forced to accept the fact of circulation of counterfeit money in North Korea, but says nothing about its possible origin. Their version of events comes down to the fact that the North Korean currency is very easy to forge. In this regard it is worth mentioning how the same newspaper, and other sources, actively disseminated the topic of counterfeit North Korean “super-dollars”, of very high quality and virtually indistinguishable from the genuine ones. If we give the benefit of the doubt to such information, the following question arises: “If North Korea is able to forge US dollar bills so masterfully, why then is the country’s own currency so easy to forge?”
To sum up, this time round, there is a chance that the information is true. This is not so much because an image of the bill was attached (anything can be depicted on the Internet), but because the time to replace banknotes of higher denomination has indeed come. And whether Kim Il-sung is depicted or not, and whether Kim Jong-Il has been added or not, is of less importance. Let’s not seek hidden meaning in places where it may not be and act like the American political analysts who studied the placement of Politburo members on the platform of Lenin’s Mausoleum, and depending on the proximity in relation to the General Secretary, made profound conclusions about who had lost political influence and who had acquired it.
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a senior research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies; exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.