High-Level Defector Describes Regime’s Illicit Income

I’d previously mentioned that I recently had the opportunity to meet Kim Kwang Jin, a high-level North Korean defector with detailed knowledge of North Korea’s illicit financing and money laundering.  Now, Kim adds much to our understanding of how North Korea pays for all those Mercedes-Benzes and missiles.  Having guessed that most of the cash came from flipping houses and the inventing some of the novel kitchen applicances I’d seen Billy Mays selling on my TV, this was a cruel twist:

The former banker said the regime’s largest source of hard currency comes from the clandestine manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. After that comes the regime’s multibillion-dollar insurance fraud business, in which the authorities stage arson and bogus accidents to collect multimillion-dollar payouts from international banks and insurers.

“The state — Kim Jong Il himself — controls all these funds,” said Kim Kwang Jin. “It is funneled to him. And then he’s using all these revenues according to his regime’s priorities, which are now the missile program and nuclear weapons development.”  [Fox News, James Rosen]

Wow.  I would just hate to be the one to have to tell Chris Hill this, after all that hard work of his.  I hope the boys at the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section are planning to debrief Mr. Kim.  He’d make a fine prosecution witness.  David Asher had previously said that North Korea’s largest source of illicit income might have been from counterfeit tobacco products, so this does change what we though we knew.

Pop some heart pills before you read this part:

Kim Kwang Jin believes the North Korean government has never negotiated in good faith with the United States and its allies at the Six-Party nuclear disarmament talks.

“The North Koreans are coming to the table not for negotiation; they are there for winning, for implementing their strategy,” he said. To grant meaningful concessions at such negotiations, or to enact meaningful internal reforms toward democratization, would, Kim says, be tantamount to “suicide to the regime.”

Wow.  He must really hate peace to believe that.  Kim also assesses that financial sanctions were highly effective.  Unfortunately, in light of the fact that he defected in 2003, it’s not clear how he knows.  And like me, Kim discounts the potential for Kim Jong Un to assume a position of real power.

Finally, Kim offers some views on the aspirations of the North Korean people that are unfashionable among those with reasonably free internet access:

When asked if he believes his former comrades in North Korea actually want democracy, Kim was unequivocal: “Sure they want democracy.”

How could he be so sure?

“Oh, I was one of them, you know…And a lot of North Korean people are thinking that they are so miserable and unfortunate to be born there, which means they want free rule and they want democracy there.”

I’m unfashionable enough to agree with Kim that on several levels, most North Koreans want freedom.  I think, above all, that they want freedom from fear and want.  I also think they want the freedom to choose their own government — which we can broadly call democracy — though I doubt many would have well-formed concepts of how this would work in practice (better broadcasting could do much to change that). They probably also want some other things that may cheer us less:  revenge, the summary lynching of party officials, a less inefficient welfare state, a cramped definition of free expression, and a racially pure society where foreigners’ movements are strictly limited.
There are good reasons to worry that a people as literate, intelligent, and yet profoundly miseducated as the North Koreans are ready for self-government.  Mr. Kim is an exception to that worry.  He’s a genial, well-educated, articulate, and highly intelligent scion of the elite.  He’s one of those rare North Koreans who emerged from his homeland well equipped for survival in a free society.  His family will have a hard time adjusting, of course, but I sense that they’ll make it.  I hope I’m right.  Things have been much harder for most North Koreans who’ve settled in South Korea or the United States, and even these are a particularly bold group among a scarred, cowed, and certainly resentful people.

North Koreans can ready themselves for self-government, however, and it’s for this reason that the emergence of a vanguard in exile and groups like PSCORE matter so much.  But let’s not let our wish for North Korea’s liberation obstruct our view of this fact:  the democratization of North Korea won’t be easy.  It will be a process, not an event.  There’s much we should be doing now to accelerate that process.

1 Comment

  1. Spot on, Joshua. The sheer, intertwined nightmare that is North Korean society pits the poor against the privileged, the citizens against the guardians and even husbands against wives. North Koreans are and will continue to be resentful, vindictive and highly manipulative. Not because they choose to, but because survival dictated that they had to be.




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