We went to E-mart tonight to have dinner and buy a sled. My wife heard that it will snow this week and wanted to buy a sled for our son. Unfortunately, E-mart doesn’t carry any sleds this time of year. Dear Reader, can you believe that? No sleds in February? Seasonal items apparently only appear at the beginning of the season in Korea. If you don’t buy your sled in October, you’re out of luck.
When I ordered and paid for food tonight at the food court, I paid in Korean won. Cashiers seem perplexed whenever I try to round up payment to get back fewer bills. Tonight I bought a dish for 6,000 won (about $6.00) and gave the cashier 11,000 won–one 10,000 note and one 1,000 won note. She looked at me, puzzled as to why I gave her a 1,000 won bill. I explained to her in Korean that I wanted her to give me back a 5,000 bill in change. At first she didn’t understand when I wanted. Then, it finally clicked, and she gave me a 5,000 won bill. I may be over-generalizing. This is not the first time getting back fewer bills in change has been a problem. My previous attempts have all been thwarted, and I end up withdrawing the extra 1,000 bill each time I try to round up. Tonight, it worked for the first time.
I surmise that Koreans don’t worry about changing money for smaller bills because they’re used to carrying around a big wad of cash. The largest bill Korea issues is the 10,000 won bill (about $10.00). Someone told me that this serves an anti-bribery and anti-counterfeiting purpose. After all, it’s hard to offer a discreet bribe using a huge stack of small bills. Plus, small bills take more effort to counterfeit. (Most counterfeit bills are in demoninations of $100 or greater.) I found another great Korea blog, Here in Korea, that mentioned another possible reason for limiting cash to small bills–namely, it discourages consumer spending. South Korea has a long history of encouraging public savings and discouraging consumption. Widespread consumer spending in South Korea is a relatively new phenonmenon, and it’s only been in the past decade that the average Korean has had to worry about carrying around a large wad of bills.
For the past two years, some Korean politicians have called on the Bank of Korea to issue 50,000 and 100,000 won banknotes, and the Bank of Korea responded that it is ready to issue them. The Korean National Assembly has not yet taken action. The Bank of Korea recently redesigned the won notes to discourage counterfeiting. Ironically, it is now fielding many complaints from people who are angry because the ink on the new 5,000 banknote comes off when you accidentally launder (wash) it, ruining clothing. Ultimately, larger won banknotes might not be necessary, because more Koreans are using alternative payment methods in lieu of cash, including credit cards, funds wiring, cell phones, and debit cards. My wife has a Korean bank account, and her paycheck is directly deposited into it. Not only can she withdraw cash at bank branches, but she can use her cash card virtually anywhere and wire money simply by giving her bank account transfer information. If she has the right kind of cell phone, she can also draw from it if she pays by cell phone. It’s a very efficient banking system.