Posted by: rbbadger | October 12, 2008

The tale of the 1 won coin

Quite possibly the biggest adjustment I had on returning to the States was getting used to the money all over again.  In Korea, there is but one unit of currency, namely the won.  Basically, all dollars and no cents. 

Unlike in the USA, we have a VAT (Value-Added Tax) here.  The VAT is automatically included in the price of whatever it is you want to buy, so you never have to calculate sales taxes or anything like that.  The 10% tax is already in the price.  Special provisions have been taken to make sure that the prices are automatically always even.  So, you never get a price like 1,692 won.  Rather, it would 1,690 or even 1,700.

The lowest valued coin in current usage is the 10 won coin.  Thus, I have never ever seen the 5 won or 1 won coins, though they are said to exist.  The 10 won is worth less than a penny, so the Bank of Korea decided to use even cheaper material to make it with, seeing as it is worth less than it costs to make.  You can see images of the currency currently in use by visiting the Bank of Korea’s website.

A man recently made a disturbance in a local bank over some change he received.  He was supposed to receive 669 won in change, but since 1 won coins are virtually non-existent, the bank just rounded it up to 670.  He threatened not to leave until he received 1 won coins in change.  He was found guilty of disturbing the peace and fined 300,000 won.  You can read the story here.

Living in Korea forces you to think about money in a whole new way.  It was a bit unsettling when I first came back to the USA having to think in easy amounts of money like $1, $5, $10,  $20 and so forth when I had been used to thinking in the ten thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of won every day.  Korea probably should redenominate its currency someday like Taiwan did with the New Taiwan Dollar and Mexico did with the New Peso.  It was maddening at first getting used to it, but now I am used to it and the resulting mental gymnastics that I perform when in Hong Kong (trying to figure out how much things I am paying for in Hong Kong dollars cost in Korean won) make life interesting indeed.  Korea is unique among the developed nations in having a currency which forces you to deal in absurdly high numbers.  It is about the same situation as the lira was in Italy before they went to the Euro.

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