U.S.-North Korea tense relations’ new victims? Apparently, ATMs

Jay MacDonald

Could mounting diplomatic tensions between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the latter’s provocative missile testing off the Korean Peninsula have disabled the ATMs at Pyongyang’s new Sunan International Airport?

Unlikely as it seems, that’s the suspicion Associated Press reporter Eric Talmadge walked away with after investigating why the airport’s two shiny new cash machines, installed at its international terminal several months ago by the local Ryugyong Commercial Bank, aren’t doling out the dinero.

Although ATMs are ubiquitous throughout most of Asia, they’re virtually nonexistent in North Korea. Ryugyong Bank did try an experimental install several years ago outside a central Pyongyang hotel frequented by Chinese tourists, but when the first cash machine made its debut at the airport in 2016, it apparently was never turned on.

In fact, the two ATMs at the airport were installed with a video screen that explains, in Korean, how to use them. Unfortunately for cash-strapped locals, because the machines are tailored to the needs to outbound Chinese tourists and businesspeople, the ATMs don’t dispense North Korean wons, the local currency.

The China connection
When the AP reporter asked why the Sunan twosome were out of order, bank employees blamed Chinese sanctions imposed in April. Tensions were running high in April over what turned out to be North Korea’s unsuccessful missile test to mark the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather, and the nation’s first supreme leader. China’s banking regulator did not immediately respond to AP’s inquiry to confirm.

If the ATMs were darkened by Beijing to send a message to Kim to back off the nuclear testing, it wouldn’t be the first time. Earlier this year, the Chinese banned coal imports from North Korea, a move likely prompted in part by tweets and entreaties from President Trump for China to do more to squelch Kim’s provocative testing.

No customers, no operating ATM
Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests another possibility as to why the ATMs in question have suddenly clammed up.

Escalating tensions over Kim’s missile testing recently convinced several Chinese tourism companies to cut back or eliminate tours to the Korean Peninsula. That, in turn, likely prompted China Air to throw in the towel on its underperforming Beijing-Pyongyang route (although airline officials were quick to assure that “subsequent flights would be scheduled according to ticket sales”).

That left North Korea’s Air Koryo – and its dubious reputation – as the only airline flying in and out of Sunan’s international terminal.

Because worldwide, nukes aside, nothing will shutter an ATM faster than a lack of customers.

See related: Would you trust your card at these sketchy ATMs?

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