North Korean Counterfeits
No Ordinary Counterfeit
By STEPHEN MIHM
Published: July 23, 2006
On Oct. 2, 2004, the container ship Ever Unique, sailing under a Panamanian flag from Yantai, China, berthed in the Port of Newark. As cranes unloaded the vessel’s shipping containers, which were filled with a variety of commercial goods, dockworkers singled out a container and placed it aboard a flatbed truck, which was driven to a warehouse a few miles away. There, F.B.I. and Secret Service agents, acting as part of a sting operation, gathered around the container and cracked it open. Beneath cardboard boxes containing plastic toys, they found counterfeit $100 bills worth more than $300,000, secreted in false-bottomed compartments.
The counterfeits were nearly flawless. They featured the same high-tech color-shifting ink as genuine American bills and were printed on paper with the same precise composition of fibers. The engraved images were, if anything, finer than those produced by the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Only when subjected to sophisticated forensic analysis could the bills be confirmed as imitations.
Counterfeits of this superior sort — known as supernotes — had been detected by law-enforcement officials before, elsewhere in the world, but the Newark shipment marked their first known appearance in the United States, at least in such large quantities. Federal agents soon seized more shipments. Three million dollars’ worth arrived on another ship in Newark two months later; and supernotes began showing up on the West Coast too, starting with a shipment of $700,000 that arrived by boat in Long Beach, Calif., in May 2005, sealed in plastic packages and wrapped mummy-style in bolts of cloth.
In the weeks and months that followed, federal investigators rounded up a handful of counterfeiting suspects in a series of operations code-named Royal Charm and Smoking Dragon. This past August, in the wake of the arrests, Justice Department officials unsealed indictments in New Jersey and California that revealed that the counterfeits were purchased and then seized as part of an operation that ensnared several individuals accused of being smugglers and arms traffickers, some of whom were suspected of having connections to international crime rings based in Southeast Asia.
The arrests also prompted a more momentous accusation. After the indictments were released, U.S. government and law-enforcement officials began to say in public something that they had long said in private: the counterfeits were being manufactured not by small-time crooks or even sophisticated criminal cartels but by the government of North Korea. “The North Koreans have denied that they are engaged in the distribution and manufacture of counterfeits, but the evidence is overwhelming that they are,” Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes in the Treasury Department, told me recently. “There’s no question of North Korea’s involvement.”