Is China Complicit in North Korean Currency Counterfeiting?

Report Asia

Is China Complicit in North Korean Currency Counterfeiting?

April 20, 2006 8 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

When it comes to North Korea, the United States has concerns about more than just nuclear weapons. For over 25 years, Pyongyang's state-supervised currency printing plants have been churning out high-grade counterfeit U.S. dollars as well as counterfeit Japanese yen, Thai baht, and in recent years, euros. A more recent concern is the increasing evidence that China has not been an innocent bystander in North Korea's traffic in bogus bills.


In the 1990s, Pyongyang purchased advanced high-speed banknote presses similar to those used by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing and began to print extremely high-quality copies of foreign currency notes dubbed "supernotes" by the U.S. Secret Service. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimated in 2003 that North Korea earned as much as $100 million a year from counterfeit currency.[1] In 2005, an interagency U.S. task force broke a number of North Korean counterfeit cases. The task force estimates that $45 million to $60 million in Pyongyang's counterfeit currency (primarily in U.S. $100 bills) is in circulation today.[2]


China enters the picture through Macau. Prior to 2000, Macau was under Portugal's colonial administration. In 1994, Portuguese police arrested several North Korean trading company executives, who carried diplomatic passports, for depositing $250,000 in counterfeit notes in a Macau bank.[3] Otherwise, counterfeit currency laundering there was not pronounced. This began to change sometime after control over the area was transferred to China in late 1999 and it became the Macau Special Administrative Region. From that time until September 2005, when a U.S. law-enforcement case known as "Operation Smoking Dragon" traced a large quantity of counterfeits to a Macau bank known as Banco Delta Asia, North Korea's state-run global money-laundering operations were based in Macau.[4]


The United States Treasury Department quickly imposed strict financial sanctions on Banco Delta Asia, naming it as a "a willing pawn for the North Korean government to engage in corrupt financial activities through Macau, a region that needs significant improvement in its money-laundering controls." [5] Although a Treasury spokesperson was candid about the Banco Delta Asia sanctions, she had "no comment" about whether Treasury was also investigating Beijing's Bank of China branches in Macau.[6] U.S. law enforcement officials involved in the "Smoking Dragon" case were initially frustrated by a Justice Department decision, apparently made for diplomatic reasons, not to name China and North Korea as the sources of counterfeit currency and other goods. Oddly, indictments in an August 2005 counterfeiting case referred to source countries only by numbers.[7] North Korea was subsequently named, but China's role remains shrouded.


Macau sources told U.S. officials that when Banco Delta Asia ceased passing supernotes for Pyongyang, North Korea's agents moved their accounts to Chinese state-owned banks in the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone adjacent to Macau.[8] According to the Los Angeles Times, immediately following the U.S. Treasury action in Macau, North Korea's flagship front-company there, Zokwang Trading Co., closed its headquarters on the fifth floor of an office building near Banco Delta Asia, and "most of its personnel have relocated to Zhuhai, just across the border in China proper."[9]


Another intriguing piece in the North Korean counterfeit supernote puzzle came in October 2005 when U.S. prosecutors indicted Sean Garland, a member of Ireland's radical left, for procuring supernotes directly from North Korean officials.[10] Garland's connections in China had long been a focus of U.S. criminal surveillance. According to "top secret" U.S. intelligence reporting, reportedly based on telecommunications intercepts by the National Security Agency, Garland may have been introduced to his North Korean contact in 1997 by a Chinese Communist Party official, Ms. Cai Xiaobing, while visiting Beijing. Ms. Cao was identified as director of the International Liaison Department, the bureau within the Chinese Communist Party structure that supports communist parties abroad. U.S. intelligence analysts reportedly believe that the "unidentified business opportunities" that Garland discussed with Ms. Cao related to North Korea.[11]


A clear trail of supernote American $100 bills extends through China and back to North Korea. In February 2006, South Korean police arrested three people who had purchased supernote counterfeits with a face value of $140,000 from "a broker in Shenyang, China."[12] That same month, a South Korean legislator said he had obtained Series 2003 supernote counterfeits in the Chinese city of Dandong. "I paid $70 to get each of these [counterfeit $100 bills], but you can get them for as little as $50 in China," the legislator told a South Korean parliamentary meeting.[13] And much earlier, in 1994, U.S. Secret Service investigators had tracked the chief of the North Korean counterfeiting ring to China where, according to press reports, "the trail went cold"-at the least an indication of a lack of Chinese police cooperation.[14]


In 1998, the Japanese Navy seized a North Korean spy-ship with a multi-million dollar consignment of supernote U.S. and Japanese currency.[15] Since then, Japanese maritime forces have been alert to the movements of North Korean ships in their waters. By December 2001, Japanese and American intelligence officials had become aware that North Korean spy-ships were regular visitors to Chinese naval bases.[16]



A considerable amount of circumstantial evidence points to Chinese complicity in North Korea's counterfeit currency networks. The nature of the evidence, especially the ease with which North Korean counterfeiters were able to relocate from Macau to more secure offices inside China, indicates that China gives aid and asylum to North Korean counterfeiting operations as a matter of policy. If so, there is little hope that North Korea's criminal activities can be brought to heel until China changes its ways-whether by diplomacy or by litigation of its banks and officials.


Administration law-enforcement and intelligence agencies must be encouraged to brief Congress on the extent of Chinese cooperation with U.S. investigations into North Korean counterfeiting-or the lack thereof. U.S. prosecutors, meanwhile, must be encouraged to pursue leads involving Chinese complicity.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] "Country Profile 2003; South Korea, North Korea," Economist Intelligence Unit, p. 85.

[2] For a comprehensive look at North Korea's counterfeit currency industry see Balbina Y. Hwang, "Curtailing North Korea's Illicit Activities," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1679, August 25, 2003, at

[3] See prepared statement of William Bach, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Department of State, "Hearing on Drugs, Counterfeiting and Arms Trade: The North Korean Connection," before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Management, The Budget, and International Security, May 20, 2003.

[4] For more background see "The Macau Connection: The Former Portuguese Colony was a Terrorist Base for Pyongyang," Far Eastern Economic Review, February 13, 2003, at

[5] "U.S. Says Bank Laundered Money for Pyongyang," The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2005, p. A12, at

[6] Ibid.

[7] Glenn R. Simpson, Gordon Fairclough, Jay Solomon, "U.S. Probes Banks' North Korea Ties", The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2005, p. A3, at

[8] Private conversations with U.S. officials.

[9] Barbara Demick, "No More Gambling on N. Korea; China's Macao, its casinos looking for U.S. funds, has dropped a pariah bank client," The Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2006, at

[10] Bill Gertz, "U.S. accuses North Korea of $100 bill counterfeiting", The Washington Times, October 12, 2005, P. A-04, at
. See also Mark Sherman, "Irish Man Charged in Counterfeit Scheme," The Associated Press, October 12, 2005.

[11] Bill Gertz, "China supports foreign leftists, Irish communist visited party official in 1997, NSA says," The Washington Times, May 10, 2001, Pg. A7. See also Bill Gertz, "Irish forgery suspect fights U.S. extradition," The Washington Times, November 17, 2005, at

[12]"Seoul 'Concealed U.S. Information on N.K. Dollar Fakes'," Chosun Ilbo (Seoul), February 12, 2006, at

[13] "S.Korean Lawmakers Give Details on North Fake Money," Reuters, February 22, 2006.

[14] John K. Cooley, "The rogue money printers of Pyongyang," International Herald Tribune, October 23, 2005.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David Ibison, "Pyongyang's spy ship reveals a dark secret," Financial Times, May 28, 2003, p.3. See also "U.S. photos show mystery ship look-alike," Japan Times, March 2, 2002, citing Asahi Shimbun. p.1; "Japan ends ship probe," Japan Times, March 2, 2002 (citing Kyodo News Agency).


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow