Archive for the ‘Counterfeiting’ Category

Loopholes in UN sanctions against North Korea

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

A new article in 38 North by Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody.

Here is the introduction:

The latest United Nations report on North Korean sanctions has once again highlighted the role of foreign companies in cases of UN sanctions evasion. TheMarch 2014 report by the independent Panel of Experts assigned to monitor sanctions against the DPRK on behalf of the UN noted the widespread involvement of foreign companies.

A new SIPRI study backs up the UN report and goes further, showing that foreign company involvement in North Korean sanctions violations is not new and is more than just a trend-foreign companies and individuals travelling on foreign passports constitute an overwhelming majority of those identified as involved in the violation of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions dating as far back as 2004.While the majority of companies and individuals identified as involved in sanctions violations are either registered abroad or hold foreign passports, the international community continues to overwhelmingly target companies and individuals registered in North Korea. This targeting takes the form of “designations” by which the United Nations and the European Union together with countries such as Australia, Japan and the US order asset freezes on particular companies, as well as trade bans, and slap travel bans on named individuals traveling on North Korean passports.

These dynamics–identified for the first time in the SIPRI study–may have implications for policy-makers seeking to apply new rounds of sanctions on North Korea in response to any fourth nuclear test.

Most firms designated by the UN and the EU as well as Australia, Japan and the United States are North Korean-registered trading companies while virtually no North Korean transportation companies have been designated. In conREAD MOREtrast to trading companies which have few fixed assets and can easily switch name and other forms of corporate identity, transportation companies that utilize aircraft and ships are easier to monitor and track despite name-changes. Given the key role that transportation plays in the logistics of sanctions evasion, the SIPRI study provides a number of recommendations in support of these and other findings….

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DPRK illicit trade activities

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Marcus Noland offers a new estimate of the DPRK’s illicit trade activities:

DPRK-Illicit-Trade-2013

According to Marcus Noland:

The chart above shows our estimates of illicit revenues (inclusive of arms sales) as a share of merchandise exports. These are admittedly highly speculative and as a consequence we include high and low estimates as well as a best guess. As one can see, this share has been drifting down for more than a decade as both legitimate trade has expanded, and intensified interdiction efforts have crimped criminal activities. We estimate that in 2011, the illicit share of exports was in the range of 5-20 percent, with our best guess at roughly 10 percent. During the hearings, one of the witnesses, Professor Sung-yoon Lee, claimed that illicit activities account for up to 40 percent of the country’s trade; that statement was probably true in the past, but on our calculation, probably no longer true—though again, all this is highly speculative and anyone who claims that they know the real answer is, in the words of former Vice President Mondale, “a liar or a fool.”

A related issue is the degree to which central authorities exercise control over these activities. Some activities are almost surely subject to central control; some are probably conducted by state entities but without direction from central authorities (or perhaps without even their specific knowledge); some of these activities may well be conducted by what amount to local criminal gangs (which may include state, military, or party officials as participants); some of these activities may be organized by Chinese or other foreign gangs with the acquiesence of North Korea officials. Several years ago, for instance, when their was a crackdown no intellectual property rights theft in China, some of the counterfeiting activity allegedly moved across the border into North Korea where control was more lax.

The message is not that we should slack off in our attempts to eradicate these activities. Even they account for a declining share of the North Korean economy, they are still objectionable. But by the same token, we should not make the analytical mistake of thinking that shutting down these activities will halt the North Korean nuclear program or bring down the regime. The real message here is that the expansion of legitimate trade in recent years has made North Korea less dependent on criminal activities and less vulnerable to their disruption.

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A North Korean Corleone

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Sheena Chestnut Greitens writes in the New York Times:

What kind of deal do you make with a 20-something who just inherited not only a country, but also the mantle of one of the world’s most sophisticated crime families? When Kim Jong-un, who is thought to be 28 or 29, became North Korea’s leader in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, he became the de facto head of a mafia state.

(more…)

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“Ponghwajo” reports

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

UPDATE 1 (2012-1-19): Writing in the Asia Times, Michael Rank offers an update on the Ponghwa group (Ponghwajo, 봉화조):

It is widely assumed that if anyone knows what the North Koreans are up to, it’s the Chinese, and Chinese-language Internet sites have provided news stories about drug smuggling and border-crossing refugees. But there seems to have been a clampdown in the last year or two and these sources have dried up.

However, the Beijing magazine Kan Tianxia published a noteworthy article after Jong-il’s death highlighting the so-called Ponghwa group consisting of the sons (and presumably the occasional daughter) of the Pyongyang elite.

This privileged clique, which was first formed around 2000, consists of people mainly in their 30s and, the magazine claims, included Jong-eun himself after he returned home from his studies in Switzerland.

It says the group’s purpose is to strengthen Jong-eun’s power base and to act as his backstage support.

The article quotes an informed source as saying the Ponghwa group are mainly graduates of Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang Foreign Languages University and other elite institutions, and that they tend to work in the security and intelligence apparatus and in top government organs such as the supreme procuratorate (prosecutor’s office).

The word Ponghwa means “smoke of battle” and also has connotations of “advance guard”. It is the name of the area of Pyongyang on the Taedong River that was the home of Kim Il-sung’s mother Kang Pan-sok; it is also the name of Pyongyang’s most elite hospital and there is a Ponghwa underground station.

The group is said to be headed by the sons of two generals. One of these is O Se-hyon, the second son of General O Kuk-ryol, who, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch (NKLW) blog, participated in a crucial meeting hours after Jong-il’s death which “began the order of operations which publicized KJI’s [Kim Jong-il's] demise and taking on KJI’s remaining administrative and command mechanisms”.

The other leader is Kim Chol, son of General Kim Won-hong, who, according to rumors, was involved in various scandals but was nevertheless promoted to full general in 2009. General Kim, like the fathers of several Ponghwa members named in the article, belongs to the super-elite as is clear from his listing as a member of Jong-il’s funeral committee.

Ponghwa members also include the son of former veteran ambassador to Switzerland Ri Chol (Ri Tcheul) who is said to have been close to the young Jong-eun when he attended the International School in Bern, as well as the son of vice premier Kang Sok-ju. Kang was until 2010 the senior vice minister of foreign affairs and is, according to NKLW, a cousin of Jong-il; he also has has ties to Jong-eun’s mentors and uncle and aunt, Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyong-hui.

Members of elite groups such as the Ponghwa set are visible to the foreign community in Pyongyang where they frequent hard currency shops and restaurants, and have a clear parallel in China where the sons and daughters of top officials are assiduous in exploiting family connections.

Although Jong-eun is said to be as omniscient and omnipotent as his father and grandfather, almost nothing is known for sure about him. There is little doubt that he went to school in Switzerland, and the Chinese magazine claims this has been confirmed in North Korean “propaganda documents” – probably internal briefing materials distributed to senior officials.

Pyongyang watchers experienced a mild frisson when his mother was mentioned in a television documentary earlier this month, as this was the first time there had been official recognition that he has a mother. She has never been officially named, apparently because she was a Japanese-born Korean, and also because her relationship with Jong-il was not a happy one. She is said to have died in Paris in 2004.

Nobody is sure if Jong-eun was born in 1983 or 1984. According to a book written by his father’s former live-in chef [Kenji Fujimoto], his birthday is on January 8, but there were no signs of celebration in Pyongyang on that day. Perhaps it was considered unfitting to celebrate so soon after his father’s demise.

The only utterance attributed to Kim Jong-eun is a paean of praise to the joys of working all night. “Even when I work night after night, once I have brought joy to the comrade supreme commander, the weariness vanishes and a new strength courses through my whole body. This is what revolutionaries should live for.”

His father and grandfather were also fond of lauding the joys of working through the night, and there’s nothing North Korean leaders fear more than original thinking.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-4-18): Today the media was abuzz with rumors of the DPRK’s most exclusive club: Ponghwajo (aka: Bonghwajo, 봉화조).  This club is composed of the children of ruling elites, and according to the rumors, they not only generate substantial sums of hard currency, but they also know how to spend it.  Below are some stories about the group:

Choson Ilbo:

When Kim Jong-chol, the second son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, spent 10 leisurely days in Singapore in February going on a luxury shopping spree and attending an Eric Clapton concert, he was apparently joined by a brat pack of children of powerful officials in North Korea.

An official source here said Sunday intelligence information reveals Kim Jong-chol (30) and members of the so-called Ponghwajo or torch group not only visited Singapore, but also went to Macao and Malaysia to gamble and shop.

The Ponghwajo consists of the regime’s princelings, not to be confused with the children of early high-ranking officials who fought as revolutionaries along with former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. These sons of the revolutionaries are now in their 50s and 60s and have recently been tapped to serve in key positions under North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un.

But the Ponghwajo are in their 30s and 40s and are not viewed favorably by the regime’s leadership. Though they are often engaged in activities that generate dollar revenues through drug sales, counterfeiting and black market trade, they apparently do not wield much political power.

The group was formed in the early 2000s by O Se-won, the son of Gen. O Kuk-ryol, a senior leader in North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, and Kim Chol, the son of Kim Won-hong, head of the People’s Army Security Command. Its members include Ri Il-hyok, the first son of Ri Chol, former North Korean ambassador to Switzerland and the official in charge of handling Kim Jong-il’s secret bank accounts, as well as Kang Tae-seung, the eldest son of First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju and Jo Song-ho, the eldest son of the late Jo Myong-rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission who died last year.

Donga Ilbo:

Certain members of Bonghwajo, a club of the children of North Korea’s power elite, accompanied Kim Jong Chul, 30, the second son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, when the junior Kim attended Eric Clapton’s concert in Singapore in February.

Like “Crown Prince Party, or The Princelings,” a group of the children of prominent and influential senior communist officials in China, Bonghwajo is comprised of children of ranking officials of the North Korean Workers’ Party, military and senior members of its Cabinet.

Due to their parents’ influence, the children reportedly landed jobs at powerful organizations and are earning money through illegal activities such as counterfeiting and narcotics trafficking.

A source on North Korea said, “Kim Jong Chul is forming a closer relationship with Bonghwajo members after his younger brother Jong Un was named Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent.”

“When Jong Chul went to Singapore to watch Eric Clapton’s concert, certain Bonghwajo members accompanied him and paid all of the costs for his stay and shopping in Singapore.”

The source said, “Jong Chul and Bonghwajo members visited not only Singapore but also Macau and Malaysia in February,” adding, “Visiting the three countries, they gambled with up to 300,000 U.S. dollars and purchased expensive products at department stores.”

Formed in the early 2000s, Bonghwajo is reportedly led by O Se Hyon, second son of National Defense Commission Vice Chairman O Kuk Ryul, and Kim Chul, first son of the General Political Department Director Kim Won Hong at the People`s Army. Kim Jong Un joined the club when he turned 20, while Kim Chang Hyok, son of Kim Chung Il, deputy director of Kim Jong-Il`s personal secretariat, also became a member.

Bonghwajo was named after the village of Bonghwa in Pyongyang`s Kangdong County, where Kim Jong Il’s grandmother Kang Ban Sok lived. Bonghwa is construed as meaning “frontier” in North Korea.

Bonghwa Medical Center, the North’s top hospital, is where Kim Jong Il underwent treatment when he suffered a stroke in 2008.

Bonghwajo is also known to deal in illegal activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking. The Washington Times reported in May last year that Bonghwajo was involved in illegal activities, including circulation of “super notes,” or ultra-high precision counterfeit 100-dollar bills, and drug trafficking.

U.S. intelligence say O Se Hyon was entangled in the incident of the Bongsu-ho, North Korea’s drug trafficking boat that was caught by Australia in April 2003, and is related with counterfeit bills discovered in Las Vegas in 2004.

Bonghwajo members are said to be habitually taking drugs as well as trafficking them. Kim Chul, who works at the general surveillance bureau under the (North) Korean People’s Army Ministry, is earning money through drug trafficking in China and elsewhere and paying kickbacks to Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chul.

The group is even called a narcotics club because drug use is so rampant among members, with leader O Se Hyon undergoing treatment at a detention facility due to heroine inhalation.

Daily NK:

The existence of ‘Bonghwajo’, a grouping of the children of North Korea’s highest leadership including Kim Jong Eun, has made headlines in South Korea in recent days, raising questions about what role this group of powerful youngsters might be playing in the succession.

‘Bonghwajo’ members are said to be involved in foreign currency-earning businesses, many of them illegal, while also working in key areas of the National Security Agency, General Bureau of Reconnaissance, Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, Central Prosecutors’ Office and other high organs. They reportedly curry favour by financially supporting both Kim Jong Eun and elder brother Kim Jong Cheol.

Therefore, one analysis has it that the Bonghwajo, which is analogous with China’s ‘Princelings’ is both a group for the strengthening of Kim Jong Eun’s power and a private bank through which to finance the successor’s activities.

Cho Young Ki, a professor with Korea University, told The Daily NK today, “Bonghwajo can be read as being Kim Jong Eun’s support group. The Three Revolutionary Teams took the initiative in the establishment of Kim Jong Il’s power, and I presume that Bonghwajo might be performing the same role.”

Professor Cho added, “Kim Jong Cheol, who lost his practical power after publicizing the succession structure, is likely to be providing this group with his support.”

Head of World North Korea Study Center An Chan Il agreed, suggesting, “It appears that Bonghwajo may be intervening in personnel management while offering funds for Kim Jong Eun obtained from foreign currency-earning businesses.”

An went on to describe a group led by Kim Jong Il’s half brother Kim Pyong Il and Oh Il Cheong (the son of former Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Oh Jin Wu) at the time of Kim Jong Il’s elevation.

An said, “Even though we didn’t know their name, there was a group that came before ‘Bonghwajo’, and the nature of ‘Bonghwajo’ could be the same as that of the group led by Kim Pyong Il.” He went on, “Kim Pyong Il worked as the group’s main leader, but then he was put in a ‘sub-branch’ and got sent overseas. But Oh Il Cheong switched line and is now a Lieutenant-General.”

The ‘Bonghwajo’ group may well consider that it is in the same boat as Kim Jong Eun. Therefore, its members are likely to work to expand their power in the Party, military and foreign currency earning organs so to ensure Kim Jong Eun’s succession and their own access to power and money for the years to come.

The core members of the Bonghwajo are said to be Oh Se Hyun, the second son of Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission Oh Keuk Ryul, Kim Cheol, who is the eldest son of Kim Won Hong (the vice director in charge of political organization in the General Political Department of the People’s Army), Kang Tae Sung, the eldest son of Vice Premier of the Cabinet Kang Suk Ju, Kim Cheol Woong, the second son of Kim Choong Il (a former vice director in Kim Jong Il’s Secretary’s Office), and Cho Sung Ho, the eldest son of Cho Myeong Rok (former first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission).

However, professor Cho pointed out, “Even if Bonghwajo make an effort to establish Kim Jong Eun’s smooth power succession, it is doubtful whether they can reign properly. The extent of their activities and legitimacy may decide whether or not they are able to support Kim Jong Eun.”

Meanwhile, Yonhap News has claimed that drugs are so prevalent within the group that it is known as a drug club, and Oh Se Hyun has reportedly been treated for addiction.

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N. Korean currency sustains steep fluctuations

Friday, December 16th, 2011

According to Yonhap:

The North Korean currency has recently gained 20 percent against the Chinese yuan, a rare development blamed on rumors of the North’s counterfeiting, a source familiar with the issue said Friday.

The North Korean won was traded at 1,000 won to 1 Chinese yuan a week ago, but 1 yuan is now worth only 800 won in the country’s major northeastern city of Chongjin.

The source said, on condition of anonymity, that the demand for foreign currencies has surged on rumors a week ago that a lot of North Korea’s currency being circulated in the market was counterfeit.

The rumor quickly spread across the country via merchants who have mobile phones. However, it later turned out to be groundless, which helped the North Korean currency regain strength against yuan.

North Koreans favor Chinese yuan and U.S. dollars over their own currency after a botched currency reform as they believe foreign currencies are more stable, according to the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

China is the North’s key ally, economic benefactor and diplomatic supporter.

In 2009, the North carried out a massive currency reform to try to rein in galloping inflation, squash free market activities and tighten state control over the economy. However, the measures failed to halt massive inflation and worsened food shortages and public backlash.

A North Korean defector in South Korea said there are several big shots in Pyongyang who manipulate exchange rates in the market by starting rumors such as the banning of foreign currencies.

In recent years, mobile phones have emerged as tools for spreading news in the isolated country where the communist regime tightly controls its 24 million people.

The number of mobile phone users in North Korea has jumped to more than 535,000 as of March, up 420 percent from the same time last year, according to Orascom Telecom, Egypt’s cell phone service provider in the North.

Read the full story here:
N. Korean currency sustains steep fluctuations
Yonhap
2011-12-16

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Mangyongbong 92 to be put to use in Rason for tourism

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

 

Pictured above: (L) Mangyongbong-92 in the Wonsan Harbor. (R)  American Budweiser Beer and dried fish served on the Mangyongbong-92

UPDATE 3 (2013-2-26): The Singaporean ship,  Royale Star, has been delivered to Rajin to handle tourist cruises. According to Google Earth imagery (2012-9-21), the Mangyongbong-92 has been returned to its primary port in Wonsan.

UPDATE 2 (2011-9-3): The Telegraph and ITN (UK) put together a humorous take on the cruise here.

UPDATE 1  (2011-8-31): According to the Associated Press:

The maiden voyage — a trial run — arrived Wednesday, carrying dozens of Chinese travel agents, international media and North Korean officials.

About 500 North Koreans lined up with military precision at the Rason port for a red carpet send-off Tuesday, waving small flags and plastic flowers while revolutionary marches such as “Marshal Rides a White Horse” blared over the loudspeakers. Streamers swirled and balloons spiraled skyward.

The Mangyongbong, a refurbished Japanese-built cargo ship with rusty portholes and musty cabins, was used for the 21-hour overnight cruise tracing the length of North Korea’s east coast. Some passengers slept on wooden bunkbeds while others were assigned mattresses on the floor. Simple meals were served cafeteria-style on metal trays.

A plaque on board commemorated a 1972 tour of the boat by North Korea’s founder, late President Kim Il Sung, and bright red posters emblazoned with his sayings decorated the walls.

Park promised a “more luxurious” ship capable of carrying up to 900 passengers, perhaps next year. He said the goal is to bring as many as 4,000 visitors a day from Rason to Mount Kumgang during the peak summer season, up from some 500 per week now.

“People from any country — Jamaica, Japan, Singapore, people from various countries — can come to Rason and don’t require a visa,” said Rason’s vice mayor, Hwang Chol Nam. “That’s the reality.”

But other restrictions remain. Hwang said visitors must book with approved travel agents and remain in their guides’ company throughout. Mobile phones must be left behind in China.

It remains to be seen how many Chinese tourists will be interested in the new tours. With incomes rising, Chinese are traveling abroad in rising numbers, thronging tour groups to Europe, Thailand, Japan and South Korea, with a small but growing number making the short trip to neighboring North Korea.

A rush of American visitors is unlikely. A long-standing U.S. State Department travel warning says North Korea strictly monitors visitors and harshly punishes law-breakers and reminds Americans that the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

A senior South Korean official said North Korea would have trouble drawing investors and tourists after the way the North dealt with South Korean businesses.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry plans to send a letter to foreign embassies asking them not to cooperate with any new Diamond Mountain tours offered by North Korea, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name was not used.

North Korea’s latest moves are likely to upset Hyundai — but that might be the strategy of Pyongyang officials riding out conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s leadership, which ends next year, said Yoon Deok-ryong, an economist at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

“If they bring potential investors into the Mount Kumgang area, Hyundai would be upset and try to mobilize possible supporters in Parliament so the next government in South Korea will improve inter-Korean relations,” he said. “That is I think the design of the North Korean government.”

Wang Zhijun, a Chinese hotel manager from Jilin province who joined the trip free of charge, said it won’t be hard to sell the cruise to tourists in his region, which has a large ethnic Korean population and lacks coastline of its own.

But, he said, the price would have to stay low, suggesting around 2000 yuan (US$310) per passenger for an all-inclusive, five-day trip.

“It ought to be very popular. There are a lot of tourists already coming across to Rason,” Wang said. “People from China’s northeast would really like this kind of trip because it’s a cruise. You can enjoy the sea.”

The AFP also reported from the bosom of the Mangyongbong:

It has karaoke and fresh coffee, but the bathrooms on the lower decks are out of water and some guests sleep on the floor. Welcome aboard North Korea’s first cruise ship.

Keen to boost tourism and earn much-needed cash, authorities in the impoverished nation have decided to launch a cruise tour from the rundown northeastern port city of Rajin to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang.

In a highly unusual move, the reclusive regime invited more than 120 journalists and Chinese tour operators on board the newly-renovated, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong ship for a trial run of the 21-hour journey.

The vessel left one of Rajin’s ageing piers on Tuesday to the sound of rousing music, as hundreds of students and workers holding colourful flowers stood in line and clapped in unison.

“The boat was only renovated one week ago,” said Hwang Chol Nam, vice mayor of the Rason special economic zone, as he sat on the top deck at a table filled with bottles of North Korean beer, a large plate of fruit, and egg and seafood dishes.

“But it has already made the trip to Mount Kumgang and back. I told people to test the ship to make sure it was safe,” said the 48-year-old, dressed in a crisp suit adorned with a red pin sporting late leader Kim Il-Sung’s portrait.

The project is the brainchild of North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group and the government of Rason, a triangular coastal area in the northeast that encompasses Rajin and Sonbong cities, and borders China and Russia.

Set up as a special economic zone in 1991 to attract investment to North Korea, it never took off due to poor infrastructure, chronic power shortages and a lack of confidence in the reclusive regime.

Now though, authorities are trying to revive the area as the North’s economy falters under the weight of international sanctions imposed over the regime’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and atomic weapons.

The country is desperately poor after decades of isolation and bungled economic policies, and is grappling with persistent food shortages.

In Rason, Hwang said authorities had decided to focus on three areas of growth — cargo trade, seafood processing and tourism.

North Korea has only been open to Western tourists since 1987 and remains tightly controlled, but more destinations are gradually opening up to tour groups keen to see the country for themselves.

Mount Kumgang, though, is at the heart of a political dispute between North and South Korea after a tourist from the South was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And Rason, where the cruise begins, is a poor area. The tours are tightly monitored, and the only brief contact with locals is with guides, tourist shop owners and hotel employees.

Visitors can expect only brief glimpses of everyday life through the windows of tour buses, as locals — many dressed in monochrome clothing — cycle past or drive the occasional car in otherwise quiet streets.

Small apartment blocks, many of them run down, are interspersed with monuments to the glory of the country’s leaders.

A portrait of current leader Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung greets visitors as they walk through the vast lobby of the large, white hotel in Rajin.

“The book is a silent teacher and a companion to life,” reads a quotation from the late Kim, hung over glass cases full of books about North Korea, with titles like “The Great Man Kim Jong-Il” and “Korea — a trailblazer.”

The rooms are spartan but clean. But there is no Internet connection anywhere in the area, and the phone lines are unreliable and expensive. Foreign mobile phones are confiscated by tour guides as travellers enter the country.

Hwang said the government in Rason was trying to address communication problems and had signed a 26-year exclusive agreement with a Thai firm to set up Internet in the area, which he hoped would be running in September.

He acknowledged, however, that non-business related websites would likely be blocked, with the media tightly controlled in North Korea.

Many of Rason’s tourists come from neighbouring China. The area sees an average of 150 travellers from China every day during the summer peak season.

One Chinese national from the southeastern province of Fujian who gave only his surname, Li, said he had come to North Korea after a business meeting on the Chinese side of the border.

“We’ve come here mainly to see what changes there have been compared to our country… I like to go to places I’ve never been to before,” he said, standing in front of a huge portrait of Kim Il-Sung.

Simon Cockerell, managing director of Koryo Group, a Beijing-based firm that specialises in tours to North Korea, conceded that Rason may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but said its attraction lay in the unknown.

“A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms — the least visited part of the least visited country,” he said.

Back on the boat, Chinese tour operators sang karaoke in a dining hall decked out with North Korean flags as a waitress made fresh coffee, while guests drank beer and ate dried fish at plastic tables up on deck.

Inside, some cabins were decked out with bunk beds, while others just had mattresses laid out on the floor. The better rooms had tables, chairs and private washrooms.

Water in bathrooms on the vessel — used as a ferry between North Korea and Japan until 1992 when it started shipping cargo — was unreliable and when available, was brown.

But Park Chol Su, vice president of Taepung, said he had big plans for the tour if it attracted enough visitors.

He wants to invite more than 100 tourist agencies from Europe in October to sample the same trip, in a bid to attract travellers from further afield.

Authorities have promised no visas will be needed to go on the cruise and, if all goes to plan, the ship will be upgraded to a more comfortable one.

“Next year, we aim to get a bigger, nicer boat that can accommodate 1,000 people. We’d rent that from another country in Southeast Asia,” he said.

Some great photos of the trip are here.

A timeline of Kumgang stories from the shooting until today can be found here.

Read the full story here:
North Korea starts group tours from China to mountain resort formerly operated with South
Associated Press
2011-8-31

ORIGINAL POST (2011-9-7): The Mangyongbong-92 is going to be used for tourism. According to Yonhap:

North Korea appears likely to use a ferry to try to attract foreign tourists, a source familiar with the issue said Friday, in what could be an attempt to earn much-needed hard currency.

For decades, the Mankyongbong-92 served as the only shuttle between North Korea and Japan, which have no diplomatic relations, and was mostly used by pro-North Korean residents in Japan.

The 9,700-ton ship was later used to transport cargoes before Tokyo blocked its entry as part of economic sanctions over Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

The ferry has also been suspected of being used for trafficking drugs, counterfeit money and other contraband goods.

North Korea is now preparing to use the vessel as a cruise ship for Chinese and other foreign businessmen during an upcoming international fair in Rason, the country’s special economic zone near China and Russia, the source said.

The North plans to use the ship to take the businessmen on a sightseeing trip in waters off the economic zone at the end of the international fair later this month.

The move is widely seen as the North’s attempt to use the ship for its tourism project.

“It is meaningful in that the Mankyongbong-92 would set sail as a cruise ship for the first time,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a researcher at the IBK Economic Research Institute, noting the North seems to be revitalizing tourism in the economic zone and attempting to attract Chinese tourists to earn hard currency.

The North designated Rason as a special economic zone in 1991 and has since striven to develop it into a regional transportation hub, though no major progress has been made.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea pushing to use ferry to attract foreign tourists
Yonhap
Kim Kwang-tae
2011-8-5

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Garland fights extradition to US

Monday, July 18th, 2011

It has been a couple of years since we heard from Sean Garland, but the Irish Times reports that the alleged purveyor of alleged North Korean “supernotes” is fighting his exztradition to the US at Ireland’s high court.  According to the story:

A veteran republican handed over almost $250,000 in Russian hotels in an international plot to spread the notes across Europe, a court heard.

Authorities in the US have accused Sean Garland of being the ringleader of a massive forgery racket that distributed the top grade counterfeit $100 bills.

The former IRA leader is fighting his extradition to the US at the High Court in Dublin, which heard Garland met a co-conspirator twice in Moscow with the fake cash.

Garland, 77, also the ex-president of the Workers’ Party of Ireland, denies the allegations.

In an affidavit to the court, Brenda Johnson, assistant US attorney, said: “This case involved a long-standing and large-scale supernotes distribution network (the Garland organisation) based in the Republic of Ireland and headed by Sean Garland, a senior officer in the Irish Workers’ Party.”

The US Secret Service (USSS) discovered the ‘supernotes’ were sourced in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, she said, and were transported around the world by North Korean officials travelling under diplomatic cover.

They also allege Garland and six co-conspirators used couriers to transport supernotes and payments to avoid detection themselves.

The international probe, which also involved the UK’s National Crime Squad (NCS) – now the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) – and the interior ministry of Russia (MVD), found the high-grade counterfeit bills were in worldwide circulation from the late 1980s until at least July 2000.

Ms Johnson alleged one of Garland’s alleged co-conspirators, Hugh Todd, later told investigators he purchased more than $250,000 of supernotes from “the Garland organisation” which were redistributed into the world economy through currency exchanges across Europe.

He maintained he first met the Irishman in the Radisson Hotel in Moscow in April 1998, where Mr Garland emptied a leather bag packed with approximately 80,000 dollars of counterfeit US notes on to a bed for $30,000 in genuine notes.

Two months later, the pair met in the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, where between $160,000 and $180,000 of counterfeit US currency was handed over, it is claimed.

Records with Scandinavian Airlines prove Mr Garland was in Russia on both occasions, she added.
An undercover NCS officer infiltrated the group in 1999 and met with members in several pubs and hotels around Birmingham, where they discussed the counterfeit notes and how their boss ’Sean’ sourced them in Russia.

Ms Johnson’s affidavit states Garland knew the Federal Reserve notes were counterfeit, that he travelled circuitous routes and met with other conspirators to discuss the supernotes operation and engage in transactions.

“Some members who were apprehended in possession of or passing notes have admitted that Garland was the source and leader of an illegal supernote distribution organisation and that (Christopher) Corcoran was his direct contact, communicator and negotiator,” she said.

“Their statements are substantiated by documentary evidence, physical and electronic surveillance and other witness accounts.”

Garland, of Beldonstown, Brownstown, Navan, Co Meath, was a former IRA leader in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was a key figure in securing the official IRA ceasefire of May 1972.

He was initially arrested by the PSNI on foot of an extradition warrant by the US authorities in October 2005 at the Workers’ Party annual conference in Belfast. He fled to the South when released on bail.

He was later arrested outside the Workers’ Party in Dublin in January 2009 and released on strict bail conditions, which included surrendering the title deeds to his family home.

Barristers for Garland maintained the pensioner should not be extradited as the alleged offence happened in Ireland and was based on hearsay.

Michael Forde, senior counsel, argued his client had been accused of a complex, sophisticated trans-national conspiracy, but that the charge fell under Ireland’s own forgery or money-laundering laws.

“The rationale is very simple,” said Mr Forde. “If the offence was committed against Irish law, and a substantial part committed in the State, then the State should prosecute.”

His legal team also argued Garland’s fundamental rights have been infringed, that there had been a delay is making the second extradition order and that the extradition was connected with a political offence.

Mr Forde also claimed the application was hearsay based on hearsay and had not established a prima facie case.

“The question this court has to ask itself is there enough admissible evidence here to justify putting Mr Garland on trial,” he added.

The extradition hearing before Mr Justice John Edwards is listed for four days.

Stories related to the DPRK’s alleged counterfieting activites can be found here.

Read the full story here:
Ex-IRA man Garland ‘led fake dollars plot’, court told
Irish Examiner
2011-7-18

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Daily NK on Office 39

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Pictured above is the location of the First Caribbean International Bank

According to the Daily NK:

The existence of a secret bank account operated by the No.39 Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party has been publicly confirmed for the first time, bringing yet more attention to bear on the activities of banks in one of the western world’s renowned tax havens.

The No.39 Department, which is responsible for the management of Kim Jong Il’s private funds, holds the bank account with the British Virgin Islands branch of First Caribbean International Bank (FCIB), a prominent bank in the Caribbean region.

According to an expert source familiar with China and North Korea, the No. 39 Department’s secret overseas account exists under the name “Hana Holdings”. It is apparently held with the Road Town branch of the bank, which is based in Barbados and has branches in 17 countries.

Explaining the importance to North Korea of the No.39 Department account, the source told Daily NK, “Due to recent UN Security Council sanctions, the No. 39 Department is experiencing considerable difficulties with its overseas financial trade. Currently, excluding Chinese banks, their only active overseas account is that held with FirstCaribbean International Bank.”

Also, he added, “The only bank through which the No. 39 Department can make overseas transfers is FirstCaribbean International Bank in the British Virgin Islands, since their other secret bank accounts are all blocked.”

He said, “In cases of normal trade relationships with other companies, it used to be possible to transfer the money overseas from China. However, those routes are blocked as well. Since United Nation’s financial sanctions against North Korea make it difficult for North Korea to transfer money to accounts in third countries from Chinese banks, all foreign currency earning units including the No. 39 Department are experiencing the same difficulties.”

Generally, the No. 39 Department works by transferring money from secret overseas bank accounts to accounts with Chinese banks for money laundering.

The source explained, “No. 39 Department moves the management funds from third countries to FirstCaribbean International Bank, then sends the money to the Bank of China until it can be transferred to a North Korean bank or withdrawn.”

According to the source, the person in charge of transfers between FirstCaribbean International Bank and Bank of China is dispatched by the No. 39 Department under a false name. Also, the official allegedly travels to China frequently to deal with problems involving trade with the Chinese bank.

News of the FCIB account will not be too surprising to North Korea economy watchers. Entities in the British Virgin Islands were already suspected of doing business with the North Korean regime before this latest revelation because of the islands’ connection to the activities of Taepung International Investment Group.

The annual returns of the Taepung Group, as it is more commonly known, show that it was originally set up in September, 2006. However, it became better known early in 2010 when it was placed at the center of efforts to revive the North Korean economy through the creation of a state development bank.

Registered in Hong Kong, its only shareholder as of its 2010 Annual Return was Taepung International Investment Holdings Ltd, whose registered address is in Road Town, British Virgin Islands.

According to the same return, obtained by a keen observer of North Korea’s illegal activities, Ken Kato, the Taepung Group’s corporate secretary is Sai Ying Company Ltd, whose only shareholder, and corporate director, is JYBD Holdings Ltd. JYBD Holdings Ltd’s registered address is the same one in Road Town, British Virgin Islands.

This is not the first time that FirstCaribbean International Bank has run into trouble, either. In 2008, it was indicted on 113 charges of “failure to report suspicious transactions” between 2001 and 2005 by the Belize Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).

However, the charges were dropped because, according to a Belize newspaper, they were threatening to destabilize the country’s financial sector. Instead, First International was ordered to pay for both an electronic reporting system for the country and the refurbishment of two parks.

There are known to be a substantial number of other North Korean accounts held in countries around the world. At the time of the report completed by the 1718 Committee (North Korea sanctions committee) under the UN Security Council last July, North Korean banks were said to hold a total of 39 accounts with 18 banks located in 14 countries. Allegedly, these accounts include a considerable number managed by the No. 39 Department.

17 of the 39 accounts were located with big Chinese banks like Bank of China, China Construction Bank and HSBC, according to the report. Bank of China in Macao had the largest number of North Korean accounts, while some other accounts were held with Beijing and Dandong branches.

In addition, at the time, North Korea had 18 accounts with 11 banks in 8 countries in Europe; Russia, Switzerland, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany, and Belarus; also, it had one account each in Malaysia and Kazakhstan.

As the 1718 Committee report explained, “The DPRK… employs a broad range of techniques to mask its financial transactions, including the use of overseas entities, shell companies, informal transfer mechanisms, cash couriers and barter arrangements. However, it must still, in most cases, rely on access to the international financial system to complete its financial operations. In structuring these transactions, attempts are made to mix illicit transactions with otherwise legitimate business activities in such a way as to hide the illicit activity.”

And also according to the Daily NK:

The newly revealed secret overseas bank account held by the No. 39 Department is just one of several accounts set up in various locations around the world to manage Kim Jong Il’s funds.

However, due to the financial sanctions brought about by two nuclear tests and multiple missile launches, the No. 39 Department’s secret overseas accounts are continuously shrinking. As one North Korean source in China put it, “Due to United Nation’s financial sanction against North Korea, the No. 39 Department’s management of its overseas secret accounts has become difficult.”

Now, due to the Cheonan incident, the U.S. is planning to put in place “customized” financial sanctions which incorporate existing UN Security Council and EU financial sanctions, so the No. 39 Department’s overseas accounts will only get more difficult to manage in the future.

The No. 39 Department’s overseas accounts, which allegedly contribute much to Kim Jong Il’s governing funds, are prime targets for financial sanction since they are key to transferring those funds generated by illegal activity.

According to intelligence authorities, the No.39 Department has a bank account with Daesung Bank in Pyongyang, and manages capital in some of the world’s most influential banks in Macao, Hong Kong, Germany, Japan, and England through a subsidiary of Daesung Bank, Gold Star Bank (Geumbyeol Bank) in Vienna, Austria.

The $25 million which was frozen in Banco Delta Asia in 2005 was allegedly known to be some of Kim Jong Il’s governing funds managed by the No. 39 Department.

Radio Free Asia reports that even the Luxembourg government seems likely to implement any new sanctions, quoting them as saying, “We are keeping a close eye on the illegal activities which can take place through North Korea’s overseas accounts.”

The No. 39 Department has 17 overseas branches, 100 trading companies and banks under its auspices. They generate foreign currency through loyalty funds collected from each agency and management of hotels and foreign currency stores. Also, they trade the country’s natural resources including pine mushrooms, gold and silver.

The department is also in charge of the production of “supernotes,” high quality counterfeit $100 bills, and has a role in weapons and the illegal drugs trade.

The funds are mostly spent on the living costs of the Kim family and the patronage network required to maintain his coterie of high officials. In 2008, the sum of luxury goods purchased by North Korea was estimated to be more than $100 million. For example, immediately prior to the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15th, North Korea imported approximately 200 high grade vehicles from China.

Since foreign currency generation started to become difficult due to the sanctions, Kim Jong Il has allegedly revived the No. 38 Department, which used to be in charge of overseas currency earning and was only merged with the No. 39 Department in September of 2009, and replaced the head of No. 39 Department with Jeon Il Choon, an old high school friend.

As Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korean defector who worked for the Northeast Asia Bank of North Korea, pointed out in a recent press interview, “The UN Security’s North Korea sanctions and the United States’ Banco Delta Asia sanctions must have caused the shrinking of North Korea’s overseas accounts. It is possible that North Korea could try to open accounts under phantom company names to continue with its financial trades.”

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Room (Bureau) 38 allegedly restored

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

According ot the Choson Ilbo:

North Korea in March restored a special department in the Workers Party codenamed Room 38 which manages leader Kim Jong-il’s coffers and personal slush funds, it emerged Monday. The North last fall merged Room 38 with Room 39, which manages party slush funds.

“Rooms 38 and 39 were merged to simplify Kim Jong-il’s slush funds,” said a North Korean source. “But when it became difficult to secure hard currency due to international sanctions, Room 38 seems to have been restored because there was a feeling that Room 39 alone can’t meet the need.”

Room 38 is reportedly led by Kim Tong-il, who heads three regional departments in charge of earning hard currency.

Room 39 tries to maximize earnings from gold and zinc mining and farming and fisheries. It also manages stores and hotels exclusively for foreigners in Pyongyang. Room 39 seems to have suffered badly due to the recent suspension of inter-Korean trade. “Taesong Bank and Zokwang Trading, which received remittances from Mt. Kumgang tourism, are both controlled by Room 39, and is also in charge of the exports of agricultural and fisheries products,” said a government source.

Kim Jong-il needs dollars to maintain the party elite’s loyalty to him and his heir presumptive. He is said to have told party bigwigs in February, “From now on I will judge your loyalty based on the amount you contribute to the fund.” His son Jong-un is also said to be amassing separate slush funds for his own use.

But international sanctions on exports of weapons, counterfeit dollars, fake cigarettes and drugs remain in place, and the United States is pushing ahead with additional financial sanctions over the North’s sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March. Pyongyang was dealt a heavy blow in 2005 when the U.S. froze US$25 million in the Banco Delta Asia in Macao which was apparently for Kim’s personal use.

Kim earlier this year appointed his high school friend Jon Il-chun head of Room 39. Jon was also named chairman of the National Development Bank, established early this year with a view to conducting normal international financial transactions to induce foreign investment. “North Korea seems to be planning to divert part of foreign investment to Kim’s slush fund,” said a government official.

NK Leadership Watch has more

Read the full story here:
Kim Jong-il Restores Special Department to Swell Coffers
Choson Ilbo
6/24/2010

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Can North Korea be safe for business?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Geoffrey Cain writes in Time:

Few investors can boast the one-of-a-kind global pedigree of Felix Abt. Since 2002, the Swiss businessman has found his calling as a point man for Western investments in — of all places — North Korea, where he helped found the Pyongyang Business School in 2004. He also presided over the European Business Association in Pyongyang, a group in the capital that acts as a de facto chamber of commerce. A few years ago, that position led him to help set up the first “European Booth” featuring around 20 European companies each year at the Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair, an annual gathering of 270 foreign and North Korean companies currently underway in the hermit kingdom until Thursday.

Yet Abt, 55, who lives in Vietnam and therefore won’t be attending the trade fair this year, laments the giant cloud hanging over the country: in recent years, political turmoil on the peninsula has raised the stakes even further for doing business in North Korea — even for the country’s main patron, China. Though investors have always faced the prospect of sanctions, he says, the situation has worsened after the United States ratcheted up sanctions on the government in 2006 on allegations that it was counterfeiting U.S. dollars. And in 2006 and 2009 the Kim Jong-il regime tested two small nuclear bombs, prompting heavier sanctions from the United Nations in 2006. Recently, tensions with Seoul have spiked over the March sinking of a South Korean corvette in waters near the North.(See pictures of the rise of Kim Jong-il.)

Those measures hit home for Abt. While he was running a pharmaceutical company in Pyongyang called Pyongsu in the mid-2000s, he learned that the U.N. Security Council had imposed sanctions on certain chemicals — a move that could have forced him to completely stop manufacturing medicine. Thankfully, he adds, he had already secured a large stock of the substance beforehand. “Whatever business you are involved in,” he says, “some day you may find out that some product or even a tiny but unavoidable component is banned by a U.S. or U.N. sanctions because it can, for example, also be used for military purposes.”

Those dilemmas haven’t stopped Abt. In 2007, he co-founded an information technology firm in Pyongyang called Nosotek, whose 50 or so employees design software applications for the iPhone and Facebook. The venture has already seen its share of success: one of its iPhone games ranked first in popularity for a short while on Apple’s Top 10 list for Germany — though he can’t name the software out of concern for protecting his contractors from bad publicity.(See pictures of North Koreans at the polls.)

For some companies, the stigma of a “Made in North Korea” label matters less than the competitive edge gained from having low overhead costs and a diligent workforce whose wages remain less than outsourcing powerhouses like China, Vietnam and India. In the past, North Korea has attracted the interest of multinational corporations looking for cheap labor in fields as diverse as electrical machinery and cartoon animation. Yet few multinationals show their faces at this month’s fair, a decline from the early 2000s when Abt says they were appearing regularly to look for opportunities in electricity, infrastructure, transportation and mining.

Not all foreign ventures in the North are driven by profit margins alone. The 2005 animated Korean movie Empress Cheung, a popular fantasy film drawn jointly by South and North Korean animators, brought attention to the animation industry in North Korea. Nelson Shin, head of the Seoul-based animation studio that started the project, claims he worked with North Korea for a greater cause than cheap labor. “It wasn’t so much because of cost efficiency as because of cultural exchange between the two Koreas,” he says.

For a country so poor, North Korea has churned out a remarkable number of talented engineers and scientists who fuel some of these small sectors (along with its controversial nuclear weapons program). In the 1960s and 1970s, the government pushed the country to become self-sufficient through development projects, a part of its ideology of “Juche” that promotes absolute autonomy from foreign powers. The communist regime of Kim Il-sung prided itself on its universities and public housing system, in particular. “It was an advance from pre-World War II days,” says Helen-Louise Hunter, a former CIA analyst now in Washington, D.C., who researched North Korea during those decades. “Kim Il-sung was genuinely interested in improving his people’s standard of living, and was off to a good start in a couple of areas compared to South Korea in those early days.”

Yet North Korea fell behind after the South’s own military dictators put their country into industrial overdrive throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, depriving North Korea of valuable aid. Then came a famine in the mid-1990s that delivered the final blow, leaving up to 3 million people dead and crippling the capacities of the already isolated state.

Today, the pariah regime of Kim Jong-il is allegedly known to raise money through illicit activities like trafficking narcotics and money laundering. But it’s not known how much those activities figure into the country’s GDP of $28.2 billion in 2009 and its $2 billion worth of exports in 2008, the most recent year data is available. “Not that much income comes from illegitimate operations if you mean drugs and counterfeited dollars,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “More come from arms sales, though, but I would not describe this as an illegitimate trade.”

Abt shakes off the image of Pyongyang being the center of a mafia state. He sees himself and other foreign investors as the potential movers and changers of Kim’s hermit regime. “Cornering a country is ethically more questionable than engagement,” he says. “Foreigners engaging with North Koreans are change agents. The North Koreans are confronted with new ideas which they will observe and test, reject or adopt.”

Read the full story here:
Can North Korea Be Safe for Business?
Time
Geoffrey Cain
5/20/2010

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