In this age of plastic cards, keeping a few 50,000-won bills in wallet would not make one feel particularly comfortable. In everyday life, you rarely need to use the light brown note graced by the elegant portrait of virtuous Joseon era lady Shin Saimdang, which was first issued in June 2009. Yet, the Bank of Korea reports that some 400 million 50,000-won notes are “in circulation,” believe it or not.
A police report from Gimje, North Jeolla Province, offers an explanation to people who wonder where all the highest denomination paper money has gone. They hauled a whopping 11 billion won worth of cash ― all in 50,000-won bills ― from a garlic field in two days of excavation. Police say the money had been hidden underground in vinyl covered cans by a man who was asked to keep the cash while its owner was in jail. The money is said to be part of a slush fund raised by running an illegal gambling website.
Last month, police confiscated a bundle of 800 million won in 50,000-won notes long unclaimed from a private deposit box. It was determined to have been kept by another illegal Internet gambling operator. So, it is getting clearer for what purpose the high-value bills are being used in this country.
We can conjecture that only a small portion of more than 402 million 50,000-won notes so far issued are actually in circulation and the rest are being kept deep in safes, attics, corporate vaults or buried in fields and marked by trees and rocks. In the nation’s underground economy, their keepers lose bank interest, but can evade the watchful eyes of the law.
As long as merchants at East Gate and South Gate Markets prefer cash rather than cards, our politicians and officials have little qualm about accepting illegitimate contributions, doctors expect “rebates” from drug makers, and rich fathers and grandfathers want to pass on their hidden wealth to their favorite sons and daughters, 50,000-won notes will be much in demand. We must apologize to the gracious Shin Saimdang.