SEOUL, South Korea - Room 39 is one of the most secret organizations in arguably the world's most secretive state. Its mission: Obtain foreign currency for the regime of North Korea's authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il.
As the United States weighs independent sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test and missile launches, the activities fostered by Room 39 are likely to face closer scrutiny.
The powerful entity, which has existed for decades, is believed to raise funds through business ventures - some legitimate and some not - that include counterfeiting and drug-smuggling. The money, according to experts who follow North Korea's inner workings, is used by Kim mainly to buy the loyalty of high-ranking officials in North Korea and maintain control of the country.
A 2007 report published by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of United Nations Associations said North Korea makes an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually from criminal enterprises. And a 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service estimated that at least $45 million in counterfeit currency of North Korean origin has been detected in circulation.
New U.N. sanctions presented in a draft resolution yesterday would seek to curtail North Korea's financial dealings, freeze assets of North Korean companies and expand an arms embargo. The draft resolution, a response to North Korea's second nuclear test on May 25, also lays down conditions for searches of ships suspected of carrying arms or nuclear materials to the country.
The country's first nuclear test, conducted in 2006, resulted in earlier U.N. sanctions that remain in place.
It remains unknown exactly what sanctions the U.S. might impose on its own, but they would likely be aimed at disrupting the flow of dollars to the North through its alleged illicit activities overseas. *