Lucky in Pyongyang (and other notes on American history from a North Korean perspective).
The US two-dollar bill in North Korea
Today is the Fourth of July — American Independence Day. This year Washington DC hosted a Paris-inspired (Pyongyang-inspired?) patriotic ‘Salute to America’ complete with fly-overs, two Abrams tanks, two Bradley fighting vehicles, and Revolutionary War reenactors. Most North Koreans probably didn’t think much about the American holiday today, save those that happened to look at the front of their post-2010 hundred-dollar bills, where the date is printed next to Benjamin Franklin’s face or on the back of a US two-dollar bill.
Two-dollar bills, ya'll
Yes, the relatively rare US two-dollar bill (such a thing does exist) has even made it to Pyongyang, where it is considered by some to punch above its stated-value (up to 20 USD, some say) or at least is worth a bit of luck.
The current US two-dollar bill design dates back to 1928. Thomas Jefferson is on the front, while Trumbell’s Declaration of Independence is on the back. Thus, the bill is perhaps the most revolutionary and anti-imperialist of all the American monies.
US currency is one of the relatively few introductions of American history for North Koreans, predominantly to the historical figures featured on the bills. These include George Washington ($1), Thomas Jefferson ($2), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Andrew Jackson ($20), Ulyses S. Grant ($50), and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Due to their company, many Koreans assume incorrectly that both Hamilton and Franklin are ex-US presidents.
Foreign visitors to North Koreans typically use foreign currency to make payments, including US dollars, Euros, and Chinese RMB. For a discussion of the marginal advantages and disadvantages of each currency for use in North Korea, see our FAQ: Which currency should I bring to North Korea?
Long story short, bring one of the above currencies with some small denomination bills. If you want to be popular, bring along the US two-dollar bill. Although remember, just like in other parts of the world (including the US), not everyone will be familiar with it. As has happened in the past in many places, you may get a cashier thinking the bill is fake and not accept the bill. Others may love you for it!
Some more on US history from a North Korean perspective
Another common misconception in North Korea, at times reinforced by DPRK propaganda posters, is that the US Capitol Building, where Congress meets, is the White House. In the infamous video below, the Korean word for the 'White House' is juxtaposed over both a view of the White House and then the US Capitol. Since both the word 'White House' and the Capitol Building itself are synonymous with the US government, the mistake is easy to understand.
Most North Korean schools do not cover American history with the exception of examples of US 'aggression’, specifically the 1866 General Sherman Incident, 1905 Taft Katsura Agreement, and the 1950-3 Korean War.
The Great Korean Encyclopedia, now available on tablets, also covers US history, including the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War II, from a generally negative perspective. For instance, US involvement in the ‘Pacific War’ is seem as a concurrent but somehow separate conflict between waning imperialist powers.
Some more specialized university courses, such as foreign languages or literature, may include other aspects of American history and culture, sometimes in a more positive light. Gone with the Wind is a popular novel, and it is extremely difficult to find book one of the three-part North Korean translation.
Some works of Mark Twain, Jack London's Martin Eden, and Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy are also readily available. Often these stories highlight the contradictions of American society, but also may be valued for the strong and independent characters, such as Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett.
American historical figures who may be seen as great (or at least not entirely negative) are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. For instance, a childhood apocryphal story of Abe Lincoln’s childhood may make it into a book on world literature or famous people.
Following meetings in Singapore, Hanoi, and Panmunjom, we have seen the US national flag published on the front page of Rodong Sinmun as well as commemorative stamps.
Now it just may be a matter of time (and some no doubt tough negotiations) to see Old Glory discreetly fluttering in front of a US liaison office in Pyongyang.
At the current time, US State Department travel restrictions prohibit the use of a US passport to North Korea without special validation. For more information on these restrictions, please see our FAQ: Can Americans travel to North Korea?
Happy Fourth of July!