Nations peer into secretive Room 39
North Korean agency suspected of doing illicit business for Kim
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Room 39 is one of the most secret organizations in arguably the world’s most secretive state. Its mission: Obtain foreign currency for the regime of North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il.
As the United States weighs independent sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test and missile launches, the activities fostered by Room 39 are likely to face closer scrutiny.
The powerful entity, which has existed for decades, is believed to raise funds through business ventures — some legitimate and some not — that include counterfeiting and drug smuggling. The money, according to experts who follow North Korea’s inner workings, is used by Kim mainly to buy the loyalty of high-ranking officials in North Korea and maintain control of the country.
A newspaper report in Seoul on Wednesday said South Korea has given U.S. authorities information on 10 to 20 North Korean bank accounts in China and Switzerland that may be involved in counterfeiting, money laundering and other illegal transactions.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service spy agency, the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry could not confirm the report in the Chosun Ilbo. Swiss Justice Ministry spokesman Folco Galli said he hadn’t heard allegations about North Korean accounts in Switzerland.
A 2007 report published by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of United Nations Associations said North Korea makes an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually from criminal enterprises. A 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service estimated that at least $45 million in counterfeit currency of North Korean origin has been detected in circulation.
‘Controlled … by Kim’
Room 39 — sometimes referred to as Bureau 39, it’s unclear where it got the name — is believed to be located inside a ruling Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang. Established in the late 1970s, it has been described as the linchpin of the North’s so-called “court economy” centered on the dynastic Kim family.
Lim Soo-ho, with the Samsung Economic Research Institute, said Room 39 oversees 120 foreign trade companies. It’s “controlled directly by Kim Jong Il,” he said.
The scope of Room 39’s activities is difficult to pin down but goes beyond just the foreign trade companies, experts say.
The U.S. has accused the North of selling military technology such as missiles to earn foreign currency. North Korea denies engaging in illicit financial activities.
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REPUTED HEADQUARTERS: The Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang, North Korea, is the reputed home of Room 39. The agency will likely be scrutinized as the U.S. and U.N. consider sanctions.