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US officials detail NKorea drug, financial crimes

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Apr 26: North Korean state sponsorship of drug trafficking and the counterfeiting of US currency and cigarettes to raise hard currency that might be used to fund weapons of mass destruction is ''likely, but not certain,'' a senior US official told Congress.

The uncertainty stems from the fact that North Korean diplomats and other officials who have been caught in some 50 drug cases in 20 countries enjoyed diplomatic immunity and were sent home before investigations could be completed, State Department official Peter Prahar yesterday told a Senate subcommittee.

Prahar, director of Asia, Africa and Europe Programs at he State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said North Korean military and state trade ships have been used in drug smuggling operations.

''The cumulative impact of those incidents points to the likelihood, but not the certainty, that the leadership of North Korea is behind this illicit activity,'' he told the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security.

US authorities do not have enough evidence to indict North Korean leaders or senior officials, Prahar said.

The United States is concerned that hard currency raised from five types of crimes -- the counterfeiting of US currency, cigarettes, and medicine and the smuggling of drugs and endangered wildlife -- could be used to fund weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms, Prahar said.

A second US official told the subcommittee, holding its first comprehensive public hearing on the issue, that North Korea continues to produce and distribute high-quality copies of its 100 dollar and 50 bills dollar known as ''supernotes.'' HIGH-QUALITY 'SUPERNOTES' ''Through extensive investigation, the Secret Service has made definitive connections between these highly deceptive counterfeit notes and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea),'' said Michael Merritt, deputy assistant director of the US Secret Service Office of Investigations.

Merritt said that since the first North Korean supernote was found in the Philippines in 1989, US authorities have seized 50 million dollar in the fake bills and made more than 170 arrests in investigations carried out in 130 countries.

The 50 million dollar is only a fraction of the total amount of counterfeit US currency seized, Merritt said. The Secret Service confiscated more than 113 million dollar in counterfeit currency in 2005, he said.

''The high quality of these notes, not the quantity circulated, is the primary cause of concern for the Secret Service,'' he said, citing a threat to the dollar's integrity.

North Korea has denied the US allegations of currency counterfeiting, which emerged as officials from the United States, Japan and other powers try to get Pyongyang to return to stalled talks on the North's atomic programs.

North Korea has said it is unthinkable for it to return to the six-party nuclear talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States when Washington is trying to topple its rulers through financial pressure.

''This type of (investigation), we've made clear to the North Koreans, will continue and it is not negotiable and is not in any way related to the objectives of the six-party talks,'' Prahar said.


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