As countries like China begin to shift almost entirely to mobile phone based payments, to the point where some places will refuse cash because they don’t have change, North Korea is also getting onboard with digital payments. An app called Woolim has been available since 2018 but is beginning to see more widespread use as compatible North Korean smartphones become more widely available and previous models drop in price.
While North Korea has for a long time used pre-charged card based payment systems such as the fairly widely available Narae card, the Golden Triangle Bank debit card used in the Rason Special Economic Zone, or even store specific cards with reward programs such as Kwanbok supermarket’s Jongyang Unhaeng card, this is a new step for North Korea and one that will likely prove popular amongst the sizeable minority who can afford smartphones. Many middle class Koreans consider their phone as a status symbol, so having the newest model or the most functional apps is a badge of prestige.
The app is similar to other mobile payment apps like Alipay or Apple pay, but due to North Koreas currency problems it’s also able to handle multiple currencies according to Koreans we have spoken to in Pyongyang. This is extremely useful in a country where receiving the correct change can be difficult due to a shortage of smaller notes. Users of the app are also able to buy products and services on the Korean Intranet. As North Korea continues to emphasise technological advancement, it appears the digital payment revolution is well and truly on its way.