A currency broker charged with running an illegal currency exchange business in Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, was recently sentenced to life imprisonment during a public trial, Daily NK has learned.

Earlier this month, a woman in her 50s identified only as “Kim” was arrested and put on public trial for defying official orders and selling dollars at the Songchon River embankment in downtown Hamhung, according to a Daily NK source in South Hamgyong Province on May 22.

According to the source, Kim was a well-known currency seller in the region and had made a lot of money over many years through her currency exchange business. In mid-April, however, local police patrolling Sapo Market caught Kim clandestinely attempting to sell US dollars in exchange for North Korean currency.

North Koreans generally use private currency sellers to exchange foreign currency for North Korean won or the other way around. The value of the North Korean won is so low that people typically avoid exchanging currencies based on official North Korean exchange rates.

Kim reportedly fought back against the police, even scratching their faces. The police officers then dragged Kim to her residence and searched her home. Kim, whose anger had not subsided, then sat atop a 25-kilogram sack of cash with a canister of gasoline and a lighter in her hands, threatening that “I would rather burn everything than have my money taken away from me.”

Ultimately, Kim was sentenced to life in prison for conducting illegal currency exchanges, obstructing the police from doing their jobs, and treason – for threatening to set herself on fire in a house with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. 

“The trial was announced a day before it happened and inminban [North Korea’s lowest administrative unit] leaders along with Sapo Market merchants were forced to watch it,” the source said. “After being sentenced, Kim was shackled and taken away by car.” 

“The authorities crack down on foreign currency brokers whenever they’re strapped for cash,” the source said. “This doesn’t make North Koreans happy, of course.” 

North Korean authorities have always kept a close eye over currency exchanges between individuals; however, the woman’s case suggests that the authorities are moving to crack down on illegal currency exchanges even more than in the past. 

Daily NK reported earlier this month that North Korea recently created “Group 1118,” which is aimed at cracking down on illegal foreign currency transactions following the floating of public bonds in mid-April. 

North Korean officials are reportedly concerned that the flotation of the bonds could lead to a sudden increase in currency exchange rates which, in turn, could lower the value of the North Korean won.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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Lee Sang Yong is editor-in-chief of Daily NK and previously spent a number of years working as one of the publication’s foreign correspondents in China. He can be reached at dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.