No Won in Your Wallet

Dear Korean,

Do wealthy Koreans carry something in their wallets other than won notes? In many K-dramas I've watched, someone--usually a rich someone--will offer payment that looks like a sort of check or money order. The recipient will often say, "Ah..that's too much!" Any idea what these slips of paper are?

Don W.

Don is probably referring to this type of piece of paper:


Pretty good eyes to recognize that the slip of paper is probably a check or a money order. This is called 자기앞수표 in Korean, or "banker's check." It is essentially a pre-printed check that entitles the holder of the check to the amount listed on the check. (Usually KRW 100,000, but the amount can be KRW 1 million or 10 million.)

It is important to note that this is not cash -- it is a commercial paper that may be exchanged into cash, but not itself cash. Although it is sometimes used like cash, many places of business would refuse to take banker's check as a form of payment. (For example, more often than not, you would not be able to use the banker's check to pay for your meal at a restaurant.)

Then why do people carry this piece of paper around? Answer: until June 2009, the highest denomination in won notes was KRW 10,000, or a little less than $10. One of the side effects of Korea's miraculous economic growth since the 1960s meant that people began to exchange larger and larger values very quickly. By 1990s, much like Americans, many Koreans would carry around $100 to $200 (i.e. KRW 100,000 to 200,000) in their wallets, and it was a significant hassle to carry 10 to 20 sheets of the KRW 10,000 notes in one's wallet.

The use of banker's check decreased after the introduction of the KRW 50,000 note in 2009, but until then, it was a common sight for the KRW 100,000 banker's check to get whipped out, usually with the same gusto that an American might pull out a $100 bill.

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