RPT-WITNESS-Only foreign currency please: the costs of reporting from North Korea

Opinion Tuesday 25/April/2017 15:35 PM
By: Times News Service

(Repeats to additional clients with no changesin text) By Sue-Lin Wong PYONGYANG, April 25 (Reuters) - North Korea rarely allows foreign correspondents into the country, but when it does, it makes them pay. When Pyongyang invited 121 journalists to attend the birth anniversary celebrations of North Korea's founder-president, Kim Il Sung, just over a week ago, it was a great chance for the country to showcase its military might and present its socialist-realist propaganda to the world. The visit also allowed North Korea to earn some foreign currency. The cost of a seven-day reporting trip to one of the world's most impoverished and insulated countries came to about $2,500 each, all paid to various government agencies. That represents about five years wages for an average North Korean. Every charge was at the official exchange rate of 100 North Korean won to the dollar, despite a black market rate of about 8,400 to the dollar, according to people inside North Korea. All transactions had to be in cash, in hard currency. Faced with increasingly tightening international sanctions that are threatening to throttle off some lucrative exports, such as coal, any hard currency is a welcome addition to Pyongyang's coffers. Government minders escort journalists almost everywhere, so it's difficult to get won at the black market rate. In any case, foreigners are not allowed to use the local currency. Most North Koreans I spoke to denied there was any black market for dollars. Except for one man who told me when no one else was listening that the unofficial rate fluctuated between 8,300 and 8,400 won to the dollar "depending on whether we've just had a nuclear test." North Korea likely received more than $300,000 from the money the visiting journalists spent on flights, hotels, visas and daily expenses, according to back-of-the-envelope calculations based on a list of expenses I kept track of while in Pyongyang. It was unclear how much went in profit to the government and how much was taken up by operating costs. The payments start with the visas picked up from the North Korean embassy in Beijing. As an Australian, mine came with a $137 price tag. An American journalist told me his visa cost about $175. STEEP CHARGES Return flights between Beijing and Pyongyang cost $522 on North Korea's national carrier Air Koryo, high for the 800-km (500-mile) distance. An economy-class return ticket on a flight from Beijing to the South Korean capital Seoul, a distance of more than 950 km, costs around $290. SIM cards for smartphones are expensive in North Korea and there are different networks for foreigners and locals. For example, I was able to call other foreigners and access overseas apps and websites but locals cannot. For $350, I bought a card for 400mb of data from a government joint venture, roughly the amount required for an hour-long TV episode in high-definition. A similar card in Beijing costs around $10. As a text journalist, I had a little left over at the end of the week but I know my photographer colleague, who bought the same amount at the airport, topped up during our stay. Seven nights stay in Pyongyang cost $784, a reasonable rate for a business-class hotel in many Asian capitals. But it was incongruous in a country where the average monthly salary has been estimated by experts at around $30-40. The government does not release any official statistics and the estimates vary widely. When paying, the woman at the hotel desk, sitting next to a golden box full of foreign currency, smiled sweetly and said she had no change if I gave her eight $100 bills. We were charged for being escorted by the minders. The fee was $296 per person with line items including "registration fee", "visiting place fee", "transport cost" and "press room charge." When I paid, I was told there was an extra 114 yuan ($16.70) charge "because of changes in the exchange rate." Many other costs were equivalent to those paid by foreigners in Beijing, although there were some unusual items. The bill for the week's food and a few beers came to $300. A cup of instant coffee at the press centre was $4.50, a short taxi ride through the city $6, and when I inquired about getting my hair cut, I was told it cost $11. "There's a different price for haircuts for locals and foreigners," the hairdresser told me, through my minder. And after settling all bills at the hotel and reaching the airport, a minder came running up. "Miss Sue-Lin, the corners of the plastic layer of your hotel key card have peeled back. That will be $3." (Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)