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North Korea has long since attempted to thwart the legitimacy of democracies around the world. Since coming to power in 2012, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has harnessed technological capabilities and turned the North into something of an expert in cybercrime. Recently, authorities in the US issued a global alert against North Korean hacking group the BeagleBoyz after the group’s activities saw millions siphoned from banks to prop up Kim’s regime.
Cyber warfare and digital criminal activity hasn’t always been the North’s forte.
Before Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the North became renowned for producing counterfeit “supernotes” of the US $100 note.
Their composition was painstakingly well-informed: three-quarters cotton and one-quarter linen paper; a challenging combination to pull-off.
Security fibres matched up to the real notes, the watermark and security stripe were expertly crafted, and Benjamin Franklin’s makeup was a picture perfect profile.
With the formula cracked, North Korea’s counterfeit dollars empire stretched for decades from the Seventies.
The near-perfect operation produced extreme results for the hermit kingdom.
According to a 2008 Congressional Research Service report, at its peak, the counterfeiting yielded at least $15million (£11.6m) per year for the state.
Many observers tie the fake notes to figures high up in the North’s governance, namely, second Supreme Leader and Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il.
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In his 2006 New York Times investigation, Stephen Mihm spoke to several high-ranking North Korea defectors about the counterfeiting scheme.
According to one defector, in the mid Seventies, while preparing for his future role, Kim Jong-il “issued a directive to members of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party instructing that expenses for covert operations against South Korea be paid for by producing and using counterfeit dollars”.
Officials in charge of the operation reportedly brought back $1 notes from abroad, bleached the ink and then used the blank paper to print fairly sophisticated counterfeit $100 bills.
However, these notes were nothing close to the “supernotes”, as described by the FBI, that would later surface.
Although such high-quality notes were known about from various parts of the world, it wasn’t until 2005 that US authorities became fully aware of the extent of the North’s operations.
It came after the interception of a shipment containing $700,000 (£500k) that arrived by boat in Long Beach, California.
According to defectors, Kim Jong-il endorsed counterfeiting not only as a means of paying for covert operations, but also to wage a form of economic war against the US, “a way to fight America, and screw up the American economic system”.
As the counterfeit notes spread across the world, the authorities searched for middle men who peddled the fake currency and pumped it into the mainstream.
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An Irishman and ex-IRA member, Sean Garland, was quickly accused by the US of working with the North Korean government.
Mr Garland claimed the US was persecuting him as a result of his political beliefs, wanting, as he said, to place him in Guantanamo Bay.
President of the left-wing Workers Party in the Nineties, Mr Garland claimed his trips to Pyongyang, Russia and other countries were purely political and had nothing to do with the “supernotes”.
At the time, US officials and police in Moscow said Mr Garland used his political cover to organise the purchase, transportation and resale of forged dollar bill notes on a huge scale.
Despite numerous extradition requests, the US unsuccessfully pursued Mr Garland.
He died in 2018.
Though this was long after the question had been solved.
By 2008, the US had managed to get ahead of the North in grappling with the country’s exceptional counterfeiting and quality turnover.
An FBI agent involved in the effort told Vice in 2016: “If the supernotes have stopped showing up, I’d venture to say that North Korea quit counterfeiting them.
“Perhaps they’ve found something else that’s easier to counterfeit after they lost the distribution network for the supernote.”
Under pressure from American investigators, and challenged by a 2013 redesign of the $100 note, the North Koreans moved on to newer tricks for illicitly filling their coffers.
Under Kim Jong-un, the country has turned to the world of cybercrime and, thus far, has succeeded in funnelling millions from organisations and banks around the world.
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