Room 39 (also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) is a secretive Democratic People's Republic of Korea government organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.
The organization holds as much as $5 billion in funds, and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills (see Superdollar), production of controlled substances (including the synthesis of methamphetamine and the conversion of morphine-containing opium into pure morphine salts, like heroin) and international insurance fraud.
Although the seclusion of the North Korean state makes it difficult to evaluate this kind of information, many claim that Room 39 is critical to Kim Jong-un's continued power, enabling him to buy political support and to help fund North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Room 39 was established in the late 1970s. It has been described as the lynchpin of the North's so-called "court economy" centered on the dynastic Kim family. It is unknown how the name originated.
Purpose and activities
Very little is known about Room 39 due to the secretive nature surrounding the organization, but it is widely speculated that the organization uses 10 to 20 bank accounts in China and Switzerland for the purposes of counterfeiting, money laundering and other illicit transactions. It is also alleged that Room 39 is involved in drug smuggling and illicit weapon sales. It is known, however, that the organization has 120 foreign trade companies under its jurisdiction and is under the direct control of Kim Jong-un. North Korea has denied taking part in any illegal activities. Room 39 is also involved in the management of foreign currency earnings from foreigners' hotels in Pyongyang, gold and zinc mining, and agricultural and fisheries exports. Companies believed to be controlled by Room 39 include Zokwang Trading and Taesong Bank.
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.
In 2009, a Washington Post report outlined a global insurance fraud scheme by the North Korean government. The state-owned Korea National Insurance Corp sought reinsurance contracts with international reinsurers and then submitted fraudulent claims; the contracts were governed by North Korean law and legal challenges were fruitless.
Room 39 in fiction
Room 39 is featured:
- as a low level enemy faction in the video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, where they are referred to as "Division 39". They are involved in similar illegal activities to their real world counterparts
- in Gérard de Villiers's novel Le Défecteur de Pyongyang (SAS series, two volumes)
- in Timothy Hallinan's novel The Fourth Watcher, a Bangkok thriller concerning couterfeiting and Asian criminal syndicates
- Landler, Mark (August 30, 2010). "New U.S. Sanctions Aim at North Korean Elite". The New York Times.
- David Rose (August 5, 2009). "North Korea's Dollar Store". Vanity Fair.
- "Global Insurance Fraud By North Korea Outlined". Washington Post. June 18, 2009.
- Kelly Olsen (June 11, 2009). "New sanctions could hit North Korea's fundraising". The Guardian.
- "North Korea fires head of secret bureau 'Room 39'". CTV News. Feb 4, 2010.
- "Report: NKorea Fires Director of Kim's Finances". AP. February 4, 2010.
- "Kim Jong-il Restores Special Department to Swell Coffers". Chosun Ilbo. June 22, 2010.
- Olsen, Kelly (June 11, 2009). "North Korea's secret: Room 39".
- Strangio, Sebastian (March 22, 2010). "Kingdom Kim's Culinary Outposts: Inside the bizarre world of Asia's North Korean restaurant chain.". Slate.