Han Young Jin
(UPDATE: On Oct. 23,  the State Department blacklisted two North Korean companies, Korea Mining Development Corp. and Korea Taesong Trading Co., for violating U.S. bans on the sale of equipment used in building missiles or other weapons of mass destruction to Iran and Syria. Citation: “North Korean Plane Was Grounded at U.S. Request “, Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon, 11/1/2008 )
Daesung Trading Company and Maebong Company, Two Pillars of North Korea’s foreign currency
In the 80~90’s, the aim of the People’s Army of North Korea was to make foreign currency and consequently, each division of the government began to operate trading companies. However, there were many kinds of trading companies.
The Maebong Company under the General Staff which was established in the 80’s, Birobong Trading Company, Yongsung Trading Company, Manpoong Trading Company and Danpoong Trading Company founded in the 90’s, all under the top 5 trading companies in North Korea. Of these, Maebong Company is the most well-known; once also known as Kwangmyung Trading Company until 2000.
Following “Military First Politics,” Maebong Company became one of North Korea’s active traders with Daesung Trading Company belonging to the Worker’s Party Division 39.
One of the reasons that the military became directly involved in foreign currency came from the fact that the nation was unable to acquire the necessary war supplies itself due to the economic crisis. Further, as the Soviet Union and the East European bloc collapsed, trade was changed from bartering goods to dollars and hence, North Korea was in a dire state of insufficient currency.
Presently, the Maebong Company’s main office is in Pyongyang with branches throughout the country such as the border districts of Shinuiju, Haesan and Hoiryeong.
In order to attract powerful Chinese traders, Maebong Company only appoints those who have experience with foreign money as regional directors such as North Korean citizens with relatives in China. After giving the title of regional director, a permit is given. Though the regional director is registered as a tradesman for the military, actually he/she is in fact not a soldier.
With a certificate which states their position of foreign tradesmen, regional directors have the privilege of freely entering and exiting China.
Trading branches in each city, trading with Japan in the opensea
Trading partners are mostly China and Japan. Traders from Maebong Company dealing with China exchange goods such as second hand cars, medicinal herbs, silk cocoons and seafood.
With copies of Kim Jong Il’s orders distributed by Maebong Company, trading partners are able to transport secured goods supplied by foreign currency directors as far as the border regions without much difficultly from security posts.
One defector from Shinuiju said “In 1995, hundreds of trading companies were established in Shinuiju… Maebong Company was one of these companies which served as a shabby storage factory stocking 10tons of flour and medicinal herbs in which people could exchange for aluminum. At that time, these people who were called foreign currency directors wore overcoats made of dogs fur and rode second hand bicycles made in Japan.”
At one point, Maebong Company illegally sold second hand cars along the border region and gained considerable income. Nowadays, medicinal herbs and minerals are more popular and whereas more of the traders from the West Coast export seafood such as shells and razor clams to China, expectedly, export seafood to Japan occurs mainly on the East Coast.
Conceal illegal foreign currency, smuggling of gold prohibited
In 1997, authorities conducted a thorough investigation against traders in order to straighten the chaotic mess created by border tradesmen. After the investigation, Kim Jong Il ordered every trading company to be merged under the control of each agency. As a result, trading companies which had once been organized by the military divisions were disintegrated and became incorporated as part of the Maebong Company, now an integrated trading group.
After becoming a director for Maebong Company in Hoiryeong, “Kim” who had once lived a tough life is now known to be one of the richest people living in the area, frequently traveling to China.
According to one defector who had worked under the Korea Service Bureau of Workers’ Party division 16, there were 6 employees at the Hoiryeong Maebong Company located in Manghyang, which planned to earn $100,000 annually. Also, additional funds are kept in celebration of national events such as Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s birthday.
There is a great number of Maebong Company employees who engage in corrupt activity and ultimately are defaced. There is a saying in North Korea, “earning foreign currency is educational punishment,” meaning that though earning foreign currency is an occupation preferred by the many, it does at the same time involve greatest risk. In 1997, an investigation was made targeting central authorities. Many of these directors in charge ended up receiving severe punishment.
Once, “Park” a director of Shinuiju Maebong Company was convicted under the suspicion of depositing foreign currency into a Chinese bank and while undergoing the preliminary hearing was known to have attempted self-injury by swallowing a spoon. On another occasion, ‘Kim’ of Chongjin Maebong Company was known to have been executed for being involved in a case of smuggling gold.