Counterfeited U.S. currency from North Korea, mainly $100 and $50 bills, was first detected in 1989 in the Philippines. The Secret Service has removed approximately $50 million of it from circulation since then, but estimates range as high as $250 million for the total amount released. One U.S. government researcher said bluntly, "We have no idea how much they're counterfeiting, because it's so good."
They are called Supernotes because they are virtually identical to the bills printed by the U.S. Treasury. They are printed on the same model of printing press used by the U.S., a Swiss-made Intagliocolor 8. North Korea even sent its technicians to Lausanne to be trained on the equipment. They are printed on paper with the same composition as official U.S. bills use, a precise blend of three-quarters cotton and one-quarter linen fiber. The ink is almost the same, color-shifting, optically-variable ink (OVI) very similar to the green-to-black OVI the Swiss company SICPA provides for the U.S.
Other major cash cows are arms exports (tanks, air-defense systems, artillery systems, rocket-propelled grenades, shells, and ammunition), endangered species products (rhino horn and ivory), methamphetamine, heroin, and other illicit drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, and fake pharmaceuticals.
The last category above is especially troubling because of the close relationship between China and North Korea. China has used North Korea as a buffer zone between it and the West (read here and here). China does not care that its policy of deporting North Korean refugees back to the DPRK instead of allowing South Korea to claim them often results in their death Given that 80% of U.S. drug components originate from overseas, mainly from India and China, it is conceivable that North Korean drug components will soon find their way into our supply chain. Then again, given how many people and pets have been sickened or killed by Chinese heparin containing impurities, melamine-tainted baby formula, illicit drugs, fake drugs, and melamine-tainted pet treats, and given Indian Ranbaxy's long-term criminal fraud, perhaps we would not even notice.
The Dennis Rodman factor also plays a role in North Korean financing. One would assume that rational people would eschew North Korea as a tourism destination after hearing of the kidnappings of Merrill Newman and other foreigners, but exactly the opposite takes place. One tour director commented: "For every one person that cancels we probably pick up five. When things like this happen, we see a surge in interest."
There are no sanctions preventing Western visitors from traveling to North Korea or spending money there, unlike the U.S. restrictions on citizens regarding Cuba, because of ignorance and bias on the part of government officials such as Marco Rubio, even though North Korea keeps approximately two hundred thousand people in labor camps where prisoners often die due to torture, lack of medical care, sexual abuse, and starvation.
North Korea and China have had similar family governance arrangements since the end of WWII. The former has had a dictator from one family, first Kim Il-sung, then Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un. China has been run by 26 hereditary family groups which have replaced the leadership whenever they feel threatened, with Zhao Ziyang being the best example for the way he was ousted as General Secretary of the Central Committee after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Bao Tong, political aide to the late Zhao, has been under house arrest since 1989 as was his former boss for the last 15 years of his life, so the family memories run deep.
But things could always be worse. We could be ordered to wear Kim Jong-un haircuts as male college students in North Korea recently were.