North Koreans build nascent fintech infrastructure with “mobile money”

North Korean currency. Image: Daily NK

Amidst reports that North Korea’s mobile subscriber base has recently surpassed 6 million, a service called “mobile money” that allows users to share mobile phone minutes with each other has been rising in popularity. The micropayment service can also be used to send money and make purchases.

“The number of cell phone users and the time being spent on phones is increasing,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source. “Koryolink (a telecommunications company in North Korea) has subscribers paying 2,850 won per month for 200 minutes. Subscribers can share these minutes with friends or buy them from vendors.”

A source in North Pyongan Province added, “To send minutes to another person, all a subscriber has to do is put in the code and the phone number of the person they want to send the minutes to. They indicate the number of minutes they want to send and submit the form. The minutes on the other person’s phone increases accordingly.”

The use of the service also allows money transfers between individual subscribers, and there are even traders who assist in these transactions for a fee.

For example, a user in Chongjin may want to send money to a recipient in Pyongyang. The Chongjin resident can send minutes to a trader living in Pyongyang, who converts the amount into cash and delivers it to the Pyongyang recipient.

North Koreans can transfer money in a slightly more complicated way that requires traders in both Pyongyang and Chongjin to complete such a transaction. Moreover, the money sender has to transfer the money in cash instead of electronically.

“Mobile money” is also increasingly being used in the markets to pay for goods.

“There are some people who are starting to use the service to purchase items in the market with the minutes left over from a particular month,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source. “All they have to do is send the minutes to the merchant on the spot.”

The fact that “mobile money” is being used as a new way to purchase products, despite the availability of a variety of debit cards, shows that North Koreans are using their own form of fintech infrastructure in the absence of other established financial services.

However, whether the use of “mobile money” to conduct money transfers and pay for products becomes a nationwide trend remains to be seen.

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time reporters and covers North Korean technology and human rights issues, including the country's political prison camp system. Mun has a M.A. in Sociology from Hanyang University and a B.A. in Mathematics from Jeonbuk National University. He can be reached at