Na­tions peer into se­cre­tive Room 39

North Korean agency sus­pected of do­ing il­licit busi­ness for Kim

Houston Chronicle - - THE WORLD - By KELLY OLSEN

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.

Coun­ter­feit­ing al­leged

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.

AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

HIS­TORY: The photo worn by Libya’s leader Moam­mar Gad­hafi on his visit to Italy.

JI XIN­LONG : AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS / XIN­HUA

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.

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