Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 8

Nigel Cowie, North Korea’s most “legitimate” banker, is selling out, and this time, that’s not just a moral judgment. Richardson links this piece, written by none other than Bradley K. Martin, indicating that he’s selling his Daedong Credit Bank to the British-based Koryo Group, but will stay on to help manage the bank. As for the issue of Daedong’s much-proclaimed legitimacy, Martin adds what strikes me as a highly salient fact:

The minority owner of Daedong Credit is Korea Daesong Bank, a unit of North Korea’s Daesong Group. A 1995 U.S. government study cited close ties between Daesong and Room 39, an office of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party said to handle foreign exchange-gathering projects for the country’s leader.

Now, there’s the kind of jaw-dropping understatement you don’t read every day. Bureau 39’s function is “foreign exchange-gathering” in the same sense that Heidi Fleiss was a physical therapist and Gotti’s bag was alternative dispute resolution. That’s a disappointment from Martin, a first-rate journalist who wrote a must-read book, well worth its high price for its defector interviews alone (and mainly for them). By more-or-less universal acclaimation, Bureau 39 is suspected of being North Korea’s primary dealer in counterfeit currency, missiles and WMD components, and dope (more). And what of its “close ties” to Korea Daesong Bank? According to a report from the Far Eastern Economic Review, this close:

Kim Dok Hong, a top North Korean official who fled to South Korea in 1997, says that both banks [wholly-owned KDB subsidiary Golden Star Bank being the other] come under the jurisdiction of Bureau 39.

Another interesting fact reported in this article:

The Congressional Research Service–which provides United States congressmen with background briefings–reported on March 5 last year that “the U.S. military command and the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly believe that North Korea is using for military purposes the large cash payments, over $400 million since 1998, that the Hyundai Corporation has to pay for the right to operate [the] tourist project.”

I did not find the Treasury report referenced in Martin’s article, but I did find a U.S. Embassy document that relays a South Korean government conclusion that Bureau 39 controls Korea Daesong Bank. If those reports are accurate, Mr. Cowie’s bank, Daedong Credit Bank, is a direct business partner of Korea Daesung Bank. This, in turn, arguably makes Mr. Cowie an indirect business partner of the men at Bureau 39 who are printing supernotes and dealing in dope, and of the man in direct control of Bureau 39 — Kim Jong Il himself. That would make this spirited protestation of Daedong Credit Bank’s independence from the regime misleading in the extreme. As for the financial prognosis of that regime, it’s a bleak day when a bitter-end promoter like Cowie decides selling his interest in the bank, especially now. With most of its assets still frozen in Banco Delta Asia and unlikely to be unfrozen soon, you have to believe that he’s getting a less-than-optimal price.

In the end, however, Stuart Levey may just be hastening what what Kim Jong Il has been doing all along — breaking its agreements and scaring away investors.