North Korea’s Kim Jong Un disappears and then appears. Now, the burly despot is out of sight again, and that begs the question: who runs the store, who keeps him on binge and fancy wheels?
Her little sister has assumed her role as saber-rattler, even threatening a nuclear attack on the United States. But those caught up in the palace intrigue really want to know if she’s the one who oversees the money machine that keeps the machine running, too.
That would be the obscure and notorious Office 39 in Pyongyang, the headquarters of a supposedly illicit global smuggling ring designed to generate millions in foreign currency that fattens the chests of Kim and his family.
Without it, Pyongyang’s elite, hampered by UN and US sanctions that prevent them from doing over-the-board business with the world, would have to do without any luxury, not to mention nuclear weapons.
“Where do you think Kim gets her Cognac, Mercedes and Rolex watches?” David Maxwell, a retired colonel in the US Army Special Forces and North Korea expert, asked the Post. “All the money to buy those things comes from Office 39.”
Drug manufacturing and trafficking, counterfeiting, gold smuggling, arms trafficking, and slave labor are just a few of the ultra-illegal activities that Office 39 has sponsored since Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-Il, launched it in 1974.
Kim reportedly hidden in his coastal complex in Wonsan is the nominal head of Office 39, which is located in a faceless government building in the capital. Some speculate that his sister, who is married to a top 39 Office official, may also be starting to take over. Others insist that the operation remains firmly in the hands of the septuagenarian executives who do much of the heavy lifting in Pyongyang.
“It’s like a bank for Kim Jong Un,” North Korean defector Jason Lee, 35, told the Post. Both Lee and his father worked as executives at Office 39, running shipping companies, before fleeing from Pyongyang to Seoul and then to the United States.
“But he has become a little more careful in recent years about illegal activity,” said Lee. “He was getting too much attention and he looked bad for the game.”
Until the early 2000s, North Korean diplomats working on behalf of Office 39 were the shameless men of the regime, and often remain, according to Sean King, an Asia specialist for Park Strategies in New York.
“The Kim are like an organized crime family posing as the leaders of a country,” King told the Post. “Diplomats were sent abroad with foreign exchange quotas that they would have to return, by whatever means necessary. North Korean embassies were organized as a multinational criminal enterprise. “
Many of the so-called diplomats toured the world, carrying liquor, cigarettes, and North Korean-made drugs or other contraband to embassies around the world. Office 39 employees also made money for Kim by acting as independent drug mules for other countries.
North Korea still maintains around 40 embassies, but the most money is made by exporting slave labor. In the Siberian territory in China and Russia, for example, North Korean men perform jobs like logging and are forced to give almost all of their wages to the government.
Drug smuggling peaked in the early 2000s. In 2003, Australian police found $ 160 million of heroin unloaded on a beach from Pong Su, a North Korean cargo ship.
“North Korea may still be involved in drug trafficking, but today it is not officially sanctioned by the regime,” Michael Madden, a North Korean scholar at 38 North, told The Post.
A look at how Office 39 worked came in 2017 when Ri Jong-Ho, a former top Office 39 official who deserted in 2014, told a Japanese media outlet that the operation had five core groups run by thousands of low-paid employees. level, a few do legitimate business but many do not.
Ri told the Washington Post that he could bring millions of US dollars to Pyongyang simply by handing over a bag of cash to a ship captain leaving a Chinese coastal city for the North Korean port of Nampo. Ri estimated that he sent $ 10 million that way in the first nine months of 2014 alone.