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Asia Minute: New Kind of Money Laundering in South Korea

Bank of Korea via AP
This undated photo provided by the Bank of Korea on Friday, July 31, 2020, shows damaged banknotes by being heated up in a microwave in South Korea.

The spread of COVID-19 has led to many changes in daily life. But in some places, those changes go beyond wearing masks and social distancing.

In South Korea, the coronavirus has changed the way that people use money. The World Health Organization has said there’s no evidence the virus can be spread by way of cash, but there is some evidence that some South Koreans have been careful about it.

It’s not that people are using less cash – but apparently, some are trying to disinfect it. The Bank of Korea recently reported that this is taking several forms, but it’s resulting in an increase in damaged currency — including coins, but mostly bills.

Earlier this month the central bank reported people had exchanged three times as much burnt money in the past six months than in the same period a year earlier — a total of more than a billion dollars.

Reuters says a bank official spoke of “a considerable amount of bills being burnt in microwave ovens” — in misguided attempts to sanitize them.

Washing machines are another culprit — local media in South Korea report anecdotal cases of bills disintegrating after being subjected to vigorous wash and spin cycles. The Bank of Korea also mentioned washing machines in its report.

The Chosun Ilbo reports as long as a bank note is at least three-quarters intact, it can be exchanged for a new bill.  If it falls into the category of between two-fifths and three-quarters, that’s still worth half the face value of the currency.

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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