Kim Il Nam’s first encounter with counterfeit US currency was embarrassing. On an overseas trip several years ago, the North Korean diplomat took a $100 bill from a wad of more than $7,000 he’d received from the Trade Bank in Pyongyang to the front desk of his hotel.
“I had to buy some toiletries, so I asked the cashier at the hotel front desk to change one of the new bills,” said Kim, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity since defecting. “She took my note away and returned, saying, ‘Sir, this is fake.’ I felt like a criminal and protested to the Trade Bank when I got back to Pyongyang.”
Things are different now. A new generation of fake “supernotes,” far harder to detect, has appeared on the scene in the last year, counterfeiting experts say.
Fingering the latest $100 bill from North Korea, Yoshihide Matsumura, whose Matsumura Technology Co. supplies counterfeit-detection machinery to Japan’s post offices, banks and law enforcement agencies, said: “This is the closest to perfect counterfeit US money ever made.”
Counterfeit dollars are one of the issues that have complicated the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programme. Before Kim Jong Il’s government admits UN inspectors, it is demanding the release of $25 million in frozen accounts at a Macau bank the US accuses of laundering counterfeit dollars. North Korea denies making or trafficking in counterfeits and calls evidence to the contrary “fabricated.”
Matsumura, 57, said North Korea’s early efforts were often seized in quantity from diplomats and trade officials.
Now that the US, Japan and other countries have intensified their checks, “the North Koreans are more careful,” he said. The greater scrutiny has restricted the spread of the fake bills in developed countries. But the fakes still circulate in quantity in less developed countries, Matsumura said.
“North Korea has used front companies to purchase ink for currencies,” he said. The volume needed for a major print run could be transported in a single large paint can, he said, estimating the cost of producing each fake note at around four US cents.
But some say the North Koreans aren’t capable of producing such high-quality fakes. German author Klaus W. Bender wrote in the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung newspaper in January that North Korea’s machinery from Switzerland-based KBA-Giori SA “is completely antiquated, unsuitable for printing the ‘supernote.”’ Giori machines are used to print real dollars.
Matsumura disagrees. “It doesn’t matter that it’s old. Maintenance is what counts.”
In Matsumura’s analysis, North Korea’s own notes—which he called far superior in printing technique to yuan notes produced in neighboring China—most likely are made using Giori machinery for about 80% of the process.
“For security and confidentiality reasons,” KBA-Giori won’t discuss its clients or its equipment, said spokeswoman Jacqueline Fehle. “We suggest you address your questions to the US authorities or to Interpol.” US Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin declined to comment.
Years of tracking North Korean counterfeiters have given Matsumura a respect for their work. If North Korea ever melts down the printing plates and allows its counterfeiters to retire, he said, he’d like to meet them.
“I want to buy them drinks and congratulate them on their work,” he said.