North Koreans in Pyongyang are increasingly sending mobile phone minutes to others as gifts instead of attending birthdays or weddings as the country continues to restrict face-to-face meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“With restrictions on movement, events and meetings due to the coronavirus, it is becoming commonplace for people to send others ‘mobile money’ as a celebratory gift,” a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on June 8. 

“Mobile money” refers to a service where users can exchange minutes with other mobile phones users, essentially allowing people to “top-up” others who do not have enough minutes for voice calls. 

“Students in Pyongyang who come from areas outside Pyongyang can’t return home due to the coronavirus and are unable to see their friends,” the source told Daily NK. “While confined in their dormitories, students began sending mobile money instead of gifts for various celebrations at home or their friends’ birthdays, and this practice is spreading to other areas of the country.”


Sending mobile money is relatively simple. Anyone with a mobile money card, which is akin to a checking card for mobile phone charges, can send minutes to others by entering the phone company’s three-digit ID number, the amount to be sent, the phone number of the recipient, and the six-digit password on the card.

For example, a subscriber of Koryolink, the most popular telecommunications provider in Pyongyang, can transmit mobile money to another individual by entering *999* followed by the amount of funds to be transferred, the phone number of the recipient, the six-digit phone money card password and then “#.” Kang Song NET customers would enter *929* instead of *999*.

People around North Korea view mobile money as a useful way of sending small gifts of money because of its simplicity,” the source explained. “Many are even saying that we have become completely capitalist since we now send [mobile] money in lieu of gifts.”


The practice also benefits the North Korean state because it is a relatively effective way of collecting foreign currency held by ordinary citizens. 

Mobile cards can be purchased with foreign currency such as dollars, yuan or euros,” the source explained. “You can also use North Korean won, but that makes purchasing the cards more expensive so people try to pay in foreign currency when possible.” 

Recently, however, the country’s authorities reportedly capped mobile money transfers to just one transaction of KPW 500 per day. 

According to the source, KPW 75 currently buys just one won worth of mobile money. North Koreans typically send birthday gifts of between 200 to 500 won of the money (equivalent to between KPW 15,000 and KPW 37,500).

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to