North Korea’s Secret Society
Room 39 is one of the most secret organizations in arguably the world’s most secretive state.
Room 39, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, Office 39, but officially the Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers’ Party of Korea, is a secretive government organization in North Korea that is believed to be involved in obtaining foreign currency for the nation’s leaders.
It is located on what is known as the third-floor offices within the governing Workers’ Party of Korea building in Pyongyang, taking its name, according to some sources, from the office it occupied at the party headquarters in its early days.
Currently, it is believed to be run by Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and is thought to be involved in illegal activities such as counterfeiting, money laundering, arms deals, drug smuggling, and human trafficking among many other illegal activities.
There is very limited data about Room 39, just like all things North Korean.
Officially, the group was originally established in the 1970s by Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father. Since the 1970s, the secretive government office called Room 39 has allowed elite North Koreans, including Kim’s ruling dynasty, to lead lives of luxury.
Since North Korean leaders have assumed the leadership, they have consolidated their family’s control of Room 39. North Korean leader placed his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in charge of the operations of Room 39, and married her off to a person with connections in the bureau.
Main Goals of Room 39
Room 39 is an entity designed to obtain foreign currency for North Korean leaders by any means necessary. Its sole purpose is to find ways of getting money for Kim Jong-un, the ruler of the country.
Room 39 purportedly uses drug smuggling, money laundering, and human trafficking cash to allow North Korean elites to live lives of luxury.
The financial activities that come out of Room 39 are monitored by Kim Yo-jong, the Supreme Leaders’ sister. Experts who track the isolated state say that Room 39 is crucial for the Kim family’s continued hold on power, enabling it to purchase political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The secretive organization is estimated to provide North Korean leaders with $500-$1 billion per year. Although other estimates argue that the revenue might be as high as $2 billion per year.
While it is very likely that governments around the world where keeping a close watch on North Korea’s Room 39 since its inception, the general public only became aware of its existence in 2010, thanks to a military publication by Dr. Paul Rexton Kan and associates, titled “Criminal Sovereignty: Understanding North Korea’s Illicit International Activities.” (Original Source).
That is not to say, however, that media outlets had not reported information about the doings and undoings of North Korea’s Room 39. A year earlier, in 2009, Vanity Fair released an outstanding piece on the inner workings of Room 39. It is just that it became more mainstream knowledge after the military publication of 2010.
Between 2007 and 2009, the FBI, the Secret Services and several other US agencies, reported a criminal enterprise worth of several million dollars. The operation was a counterfeiting one, in which so-called ‘supernotes’ were created in North Korea and later laundered at US casinos.
Investigations into supernotes began in 1989, thanks to a bank teller in the Philippines who alerted authorities as the bank notes just didn’t “feel right” to the touch. The US has tried to outwit the counterfeiters twice since 1996, by changing the design of the $100 bills.
The banknotes were so incredibly well done that they ended up in general circulation not only in the USA, but Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
By no means is counterfeiting the only activity to come out of Room 39. According to the military report, North Korea also manufactures and exports counterfeit pharmaceuticals and cigarettes, which, cigarettes alone, generate close to $720 million in gross revenue each year.
The North Korean Government also sponsors drug trafficking, heroin and crystal methamphetamine. The extent of its criminal activities reaching well beyond Asia, into most parts of the world.
It is believed that North Korea started its secret production of drugs in the late 1970s under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung, well before the end Cold War. According to Pentagon officials, by 2003 North Korea had become the world’s third-largest producer of opium, after Afghanistan and Burma.
North Korea also trades in commodities, such as gold and zinc, and agricultural and fisheries exports. Textile exports have phoney “made in China” labels attached to them.
Up to 120 legitimate front companies are believed to be controlled by Room 39. One such enterprise is Pyongyang, a chain of restaurants by the same name as the capital of the country. Pyongyang has proliferated in Asia, with some having made their way to Amsterdam (Europe).
“The North Korean government runs those restaurants to a) raise foreign exchange for the government in Pyongyang, b) to finance the activities of the North Korean embassy in the country where a restaurant is located, and c) to launder money from other activities,” including sports investments and human trafficking. Human Rights abuses are common and systemic under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.
The Criminal Sovereignty of North Korea is deeply imbued in its leadership, with a vast array of illicit international enterprises organized by its government’s secret society known as Central Committee Bureau 39.
The crimes organized by Office 39 are committed beyond the borders of North Korea by the regime itself, not solely for the personal enrichment of the leadership, but to prop up its armed forces and to fund its military programs. Office 39’s money is directly controlled by Kim Jong Il. And Kim Jong Il’s first priority is to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.
Where Is The Money?
Within the borders of North Korea, the money is moved via Taesong Bank. Taesong Bank had an international branch in Vienna that operated under the name of Golden Star Bank. It was shut down in 2004 thanks to international cooperation.
Another corporation controlled by Room 39 is Zokwang Trading Company, an import-export business based in China.
Outside of North Korea, a huge network of secret slush funds owned by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un exist in Austria, China, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland, estimated to be worth up to $5 Billion.
China is North Korea’s main trading partner. China and Russia have been known to send Food Aid to Pyongyang after a humanitarian crisis, as well as other European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Britain, Ireland, and also Canada.
Despite the abundant human rights abuses, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea became a permanent member of the UN in 1991. The UN constantly sends ‘humanitarian assistance’ to North Korea.
However, sending humanitarian aid to North Korea seems counter-productive, as Kim Jon-un is well known to divert money to fund his and his family’s luxurious lifestyle, a right he denies the citizens, and to expand his own military supply.
According to reports by the United Nations, more than 10 million people in North Korea (40% of the population) face severe food shortages and starvation.