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Counterfeiting Cases Point to North Korea

Pyongyang is accused of being behind a growing effort to print and move rafts of U.S. $100 bills.

December 12, 2005|Josh Meyer and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The counterfeiting operation began a quarter of a century ago, he recalled, at a government mint built into a mountain in the North Korean capital.

Using equipment from Japan, paper from Hong Kong and ink from France, a team of experts was ordered to make fake U.S. $100 bills, said a former North Korean chemist who said his job was to draw the design.

"The main motive was to make money, but the secondary motive was inspired by anti-Americanism," said the chemist, now 56 and living in South Korea.

Before long, sheets with 30 bills each were rolling off the printing presses. By 1989, millions of dollars' worth of high-quality fakes were showing up around the world. U.S. investigators dubbed them "supernotes" because they were virtually indistinguishable from American currency. The flow of forged bills has continued ever since, U.S. officials say, despite a redesign intended to make the cash harder to replicate.

For 15 years, U.S. officials suspected that the North Korean leadership was behind the counterfeiting, but they revealed almost nothing about their investigations into the bogus bills or their efforts to stop them. Now, however, federal authorities are pursuing at least four criminal cases and one civil enforcement action involving supernotes.

U.S. authorities have unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in support of the cases in recent months, including an indictment that directly accuses North Korea of making the counterfeit bills, the first time the U.S. has made such an allegation in a criminal case.

The documents paint a portrait of an extensive criminal network involving North Korean diplomats and officials, Chinese gangsters and other organized crime syndicates, prominent Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and an alleged ex-KGB agent.

The criminal cases and U.S. Treasury enforcement action are part of a concerted campaign to deprive North Korea of as much as $500 million a year from counterfeiting currency and other criminal activities, senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say.

The officials say criminal syndicates in South America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have also churned out large sums of fake U.S. cash. But North Korea's is the only government believed to do so, despite international pressure and laws that characterize such activity as an economic casus belli, or act of war, they say.

"It is simply unacceptable for a member of the international community to engage in this type of irresponsible conduct as a matter of state policy, and [North Korea] needs to cease its criminal financial activities," Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, said in an interview. "Until then, the United States will take the necessary actions to protect the U.S. and international financial systems from this type of misconduct."

In the fall, the U.S. unsealed an indictment against the head of an Irish Republican Army splinter group alleging that "quantities of the supernote were manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," as North Korea is formally known. North Korea's government in Pyongyang strenuously denied wrongdoing.

A report by North Korea's official news service called the charges "a clumsy and base political farce" by a Bush administration intent on toppling the communist government.

David L. Asher, an administration point man on North Korean issues until this summer, said there was overwhelming evidence that Pyongyang had become a brazen "criminal state" reliant on illicit activity, in part to finance its nuclear weapons program.

"This is state-sponsored counterfeiting. I don't know of any other case like this except the Nazis, and they were doing it in a state of war," said Asher, who headed the administration's North Korea Working Group and was the State Department's senior advisor for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The administration, he said, has made a strategic decision to press the issue, even if doing so affects delicate six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arms.

"The administration made a determination early on that irrespective of what happened in diplomacy, this should not be tolerated," Asher said.

U.S. authorities say the increasingly high-profile campaign against the counterfeiting is proceeding amid information that North Korea is minting more American currency than ever before and smuggling it and other contraband, such as weapons and knockoff pharmaceuticals, directly into the United States. A number of U.S. officials who are knowledgeable about the campaign spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's political sensitivity.

U.S. authorities fear that the communist state has been able to step up its illicit activities by forging more alliances with transnational organized crime syndicates.

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