North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (file photo) (epa)
As six-country talks on North Korea's highly controversial nuclear program continue, it is perhaps understandable that a contretemps between Washington and Pyongyang with considerably lower stakes has grabbed few headlines. But years of investigation recently resulted in a formal accusation by the United States that the government of North Korea counterfeits $100 bills, or "supernotes," as they are sometimes known.
The accusation was included in an indictment against the leader of a breakaway faction of the Irish Republican Army known as the "Official IRA," 71-year-old Sean Garland, and six co-conspirators. That document was posted on the U.S. Department of Justice website (http://www.usdoj.gov) in October. Garland and six others were arrested in Belfast prior to the indictment's release, and he was freed on bail soon afterward. He has denied the charges.
"Quantities of the supernote were manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)," the indictment reads. "Individuals, including North Korean nationals acting as ostensible government officials, engaged in the worldwide transportation, delivery, and sale of quantities of supernotes."
U.S. authorities allege that North Korea is flooding the market with supernotes for two primary reasons: 1) to earn hard currency in order to continue its nuclear program; and 2) to destabilize the U.S. currency.
In July 2002, three men, including a former KGB agent from Armenia, were convicted by a British court on charges of conspiring to import and distribute counterfeit $100 bills.
During the trial, the three were linked to Garland and a worldwide network with contacts in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Belarus. In Moscow, the group is believed to have used contacts to organized crime gangs established earlier by David Levin, a 36-year-old Armenian former KGB officer who was arrested sentenced to nine years in prison.
According to Judge John Cavell, the three were engaged in sophisticated "international crime" involving millions of counterfeit dollars circulating in many countries. "The counterfeits themselves were of such exceptional quality that even banks were regularly deceived by them," Cavell told the BBC on 26 July.
An unconfirmed account how the so-called Official IRA became involved with North Korean counterfeit bills was published by the "Daily Ireland." That account claims that the Official IRA collected its first $1 million in fake bills in 1989. Those bills first arrived at the Korean Embassy in Moscow, according to that account, and were then transferred to a "popular holiday destination in Eastern Europe" where they were picked up by "mostly married couples and pensioners" so as to avoid suspicion. They were then taken to Ireland.
The "Daily Ireland" went on to assert: "Just before the group returned, an Official IRA representative in Moscow was involved in a shoot-out with the Russian mafia. This led to the Official IRA losing $100,000 in fake notes that were also bound for Ireland."
Suspicions that North Korea was counterfeiting $100 bills have been circulating in the media for years.
One of the most detailed accounts to date appeared in "The Wall Street Journal" on 9 September.
"Criminal syndicates working with the government of North Korea are flooding the U.S., Japan and other countries with counterfeit currency, fake cigarettes and methamphetamines, according to law-enforcement officials in several countries and North Korean defectors," "The Wall Street Journal" reported. "The ventures produce the hard currency North Korea's cash-strapped regime needs to procure weapons technology abroad. The North Korean currency, the won, is virtually worthless outside North Korea."
The indictment in the Garland case asserts that North Korean counterfeits began appearing in Ireland in the early 1990s. After the United States redesigned its $100 bills to enhance security features, "supernotes" reportedly began appearing.
"Pyongyang has found numerous ways to distribute its counterfeit money" the UPI reported on 7 November. "Kim Jong-il's regime also distributes millions of supernotes via Asian criminal organizations. In early August, two FBI operations -- called Smoking Dragon and Royal Charm -- uncovered a Chinese-organized crime network and confiscated $4.5 million in supernotes"
In June 2004, the BBC program "Panorama" broadcast a special program called "The Super Dollar" that dealt with North Korean activities.
According to"Panorama," "in the late 1980s, U.S. intelligence discovered that the North Korean government had acquired a highly sophisticated printing press known as the Intaglio."
The BBC reported: "The police investigation is producing a detailed picture of an international counterfeiting cartel. The surveillance shows that it's all run by a tightly knit group of criminals. They're getting their hands on the superdollars in Moscow. The counterfeit cash is then smuggled to Dublin, from Ireland it's taken to Birmingham and distributed in the criminal underworld. Much of it is then bought in bulk by one man."
"Panorama" interviewed the Russian Interior Ministry General Vladimir Uskov, whose men reportedly followed Sean Garland as he visited the North Korean Embassy in Moscow.
"We registered his contacts with the North Korean Embassy," Uskov said. "He visited the embassy several times. The fact [that] he went to the North Korean Embassy, our information was that people working there might have been involved in the transportation of counterfeit dollars."
North Korea is not the only country to have been accused by the United States of counterfeiting $100 bills on a grand scale. The U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) program "Nova" on 22 October 1996 reported that the governments of Iran and Syria had been accused by U.S. Congressional investigators of involvement in the production and distribution of high-quality dollar bills. The Iranian government dismissed the charges, and no indictments were ever filed.