North Korea and the Supernote Enigma
Allegations that North Koreans are counterfeiting U.S. currency
by Gregory Elich
Global Research, May 7, 2008
Korea Policy Institute
North Korea, it is often said, is a criminal state. One of the more persistent stories supporting that allegation is that the North Koreans are counterfeiting U.S. currency. Through repetition, the claim has taken on an aura of proven fact. This in turn has been cited as justification for everything from imposing punitive measures against North Korea to suggesting that the nation cannot be trusted as a partner in nuclear negotiations.
The evidence against North Korea is widely regarded as convincing. "The North Koreans have denied that they are engaged in the distribution and manufacture of counterfeits," says Daniel Glaser of the U.S. Treasury Department, "but the evidence is overwhelming that they are. There's no question of North Korea's involvement."1 There is no denying that North Korean citizens have been caught passing counterfeit currency in Europe and Asia, and some defectors from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK — the formal name for North Korea) claim to have first-hand knowledge of state-run counterfeiting operations. In Western media reports the case is treated as proven. Yet the closer one examines the matter, the murkier the picture becomes.
One South Korean specialist on the DPRK says that interviews with defectors convinced him of the existence of a state-run counterfeiting operation, and that the intent was to fund covert operations and wage economic warfare against the U.S.13 But the stories defectors tell do not always hold up. In some cases, defectors report hearsay — what they have heard from others. Other times, defectors appear to have first-hand knowledge, such as the two who talked to BBC News.14 Yet North Korean defectors, eager to please their new hosts, have been noted for a tendency to tell stories that turn out to be dubious. As Raphael Perle, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service, points out, "A lot of defectors or refugees give us information, but they tell us anything we want to know. You have to question the reliability of what they say."15
The most striking thing about the indictment is its vagueness. No North Korean is identified, and meetings with North Koreans are mentioned without any actual transaction being described. Sean Garland himself states, "I have no associate named Corcoran [one of the codefendants] nor have I any associates in jail in Britain."18 The impression one gets is that Garland was indicted because of his political and business contacts with North Koreans, and that tying him to an actually existing counterfeiting ring would make for a persuasive sounding case against North Korea. In contrast to the lack of anything definite concerning Garland, the indictment is more detailed when describing the activities of the codefendants. Garland writes that "neither myself or my legal team have had as yet received any information from the U.S. authorities to set out the nature of the allegations against me." As for the indictment, "No evidence is offered of any crime or wrongdoing," and Garland "strenuously" denied the allegations.19 Having political and business contacts with North Koreans does not in itself indicate involvement in the supernote trade.
Counterfeiting allegations against North Korea provided the pretext for harsh economic measures. As the September 2005 six-party nuclear disarmament negotiations were taking place in Beijing, Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Department of the Treasury, issued a press release designating Macao-based Banco Delta Asia as a "primary money-laundering concern." The bank, Levey reported, "has been a willing pawn for the North Korean government to engage in corrupt financial activities." By providing financial services to the DPRK for over twenty years, it "has facilitated many of that regime's criminal activities, including circulating counterfeit U.S. currency." 20 In a matter of days, U.S. financial institutions were instructed to sever relations with Banco Delta Asia. By December of the same year, the Treasury Department had issued an advisory in which it warned that the DPRK "may be seeking banking services elsewhere" following the action taken against the Macao bank. U.S. financial institutions were told to "take reasonable steps to guard against the abuse of their financial services by North Korea." Tellingly, it added, "We encourage financial institutions worldwide to take similar precautions."21