Singapore Postcard: Summit adds value to North Korea's coins

SINGAPORE — Stamped with images of "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung, national monuments or even ballistic missiles, coins minted in North Korea are renowned among collectors for their scarcity, partly due to international sanctions that outlaw them from being auctioned.

Now collectors in Singapore who have spent tens of thousands of dollars acquiring the coins are happy that Tuesday's summit is driving up prices and ushering first-time buyers into the market.

Joseph Poh, who has been buying and selling North Korean coins for two years, made his largest sale after the confirmation of a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

He sold two, five-ounce gold coins to a first-time buyer at $22,500 each. There are only three in circulation and Poh had purchased them for just under $14,000 each.

"Every day we are making money, because now more people know about North Korea. The collectors are coming every day," Poh told The Associated Press.

The coins aren't always pricey. One can expect to pay $15 for uncommon copper currency, said Poh, who owns the United Numismatic Centre, which has been dealing with coins, bank notes and stamps for decades.

Another popular range of coins was released just before North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile last year. The five coins feature depictions of missile launches and the exploration of outer space. Only 500 sets were minted.

It's that low mintage that gives North Korean coins their value among collectors.

Still, the market is narrow. U.N Security Council sanctions have put restrictions on the country's exports, which prevents its coins from being sold at auctions.

But there appears to be a grey area. Poh said a Chinese businessman who was involved in setting up a mint in Pyongyang before sanctions were imposed is still allowed to sell them at coin shows in Singapore and around the region. The coins are authenticated in China by the Professional Coin Grading Service.

Because they are technically Chinese products, dealers around the world can display these coins prominently in glass cabinets and say they are for sale.

Poh said that he attends three to four shows every year to purchase North Korean coins, among other currencies. He estimates that there are fewer than 10 collectors of North Korean coins in Singapore.

Retiree Harry Ng has spent more than $22,500 on 120 North Korean coins.

His favorite? An aluminum-nickel piece with the profile of Kim Il Sung that he bought from a South Korean dealer.

"I won't sell it unless it's a very high price. They told me there were six, but I haven't seen a second piece," Ng said.

He keeps his fascination with North Korea a secret.

"My family doesn't know. When they come to know about it, they will ask why I am collecting all this rubbish," he said.

With the Trump-Kim summit, the hobby has started to reap some rewards. Ng has managed to sell two Arirang Festival coins on an online marketplace, at double the cost.

The summit has also spurred demand for commemorative medallions of the event as well.

In May, the White House Communications Agency released a red-white-and-blue medallion showing the profiles of Trump and Kim set against their countries' flags.

The Singapore Mint has launched gold, silver and nickel-plated zinc medallions that feature a handshake between the leaders. The response has been overwhelming and the medallions will be sold only to those who enter and win a lottery.

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