The Wiseguy Regime
North Korea has embarked on a global crime spree
The target for this appears to be Japan, where the nation's 500,000 users pay handsomely for high-quality crystal meth. Most of Japan's speed in recent years has come from China, but Tokyo cops got a surprise in April 1997, in a small port in southern Japan. There a lone customs inspector wondered about the 12 large cans of honey that crew members hand-carried from a North Korean freighter. It seemed strange, the inspector thought, that North Korea was exporting food in the midst of a famine. A check found the cans crammed with 130 pounds of meth. Then, last August, Japanese police traced a 660-pound meth shipment, worth $335 million on the street, to a North Korean boat disguised as a Japanese vessel. Investigators have tied both cases to the yakuza--Japanese crime syndicates--many of whose members are ethnic Korean. Japanese police are alarmed: In two years the North Koreans have come to supply nearly 20 percent of Japan's multibillion-dollar meth market.
North Korean-printed U.S. dollars are also showing up with troubling frequency: Authorities have seized Pyongyang's bad bills in at least nine countries, from Mongolia to Germany. Last April, for instance, a North Korean trade attache in Vladivostok, Russia, was caught passing $30,000 in fake hundreds. In 1994, police in Macao traced $600,000 of the bogus bills to a North Korean trading company. Any doubts of official complicity were erased in 1996, when Yoshimi Tanaka, a former Japanese Red Army member wanted for hijacking, was arrested in Cambodia and tied to $200,000 in counterfeit money. Tanaka held a North Korean diplomatic passport, traveled in a North Korean Embassy car, and was accompanied by North Korean officials.
"Supernotes." The Korean $100 bills have been dubbed "supernotes"; they are so good they helped push the United States to issue redesigned currency in 1996. The old-style bills are cranked out on a $10 million intaglio press similar to those employed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, officials say. North Korean defectors claim the notes come from a high-security plant in Pyongyang. Kim Jeong Min, a former top North Korean intelligence official, told U.S. News that he had been ordered to find the paper used to print U.S. currency but couldn't. "Instead, I obtained many $1 notes and bleached the ink out of them," he says. "The size of the bill was what mattered, not the denomination."
South Korea's intelligence agency estimates that the North turns out some $15 million in counterfeit U.S. money each year; American officials believe that figure is high. But even that amount would not constitute a threat to the stability of the greenback ($480 billion in U.S. currency is circulated worldwide).
Defector Kim says his career was not limited to counterfeiting. He boasts that before he left in 1988 he smuggled gems and Western currency out of Africa. Cramming French francs, U.S. dollars, and South African diamonds into his suitcases, he ventured overseas as often as five times a month during the 1980s. Protected by diplomatic immunity, Kim claims he cleared a profit of $80 million during that time, both for the regime and for himself. "I was immune from any laws," he says.