The currency changer, brazenly plying his illegal trade in the Bank
of China lobby, pulled out a thick wad of cash from around the world
and carefully removed a bill. The 2003 series U.S. $100 bill was
a fake, but not just any fake. It was a “supernote,” a counterfeit so
perfect it’s an international whodunit.
to compare photographically blown-up sections with magnifying
instruments, as these craftworkers did recently in Tokyo. About $50
million of the mystery money has been seized since 1989.
It had come from a North Korean businessman, the changer said,
getting angry looks from his confederates. He stank of alcohol, but his
story was plausible. The impoverished hermit nation sat just across the
Yalu River from Dandong.
The Bush administration and members of
Congress two years ago loudly accused North Korean leaders of being
behind the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, but a 10-month McClatchy
Newspapers investigation raises questions about those charges.
As the currency changer told a reporter, “The ones from Europe are much better.”
the origin of the bills, “it’s by far the most sophisticated
counterfeiting operation in the world,” said James Kolbe, a former
congressman from Arizona who oversaw funding for the Secret Service.
“We are not certain as to how this is being done or how it’s happening.”
paper appears to be made from the same cotton and linen mix that
distinguishes U.S. currency from others. It includes the watermarks
visible from the other side of the bill, colored microfibers woven into
the substrate of the banknote and an embedded strip, barely visible,
that reads USA 100 and glows red under ultraviolet light.
bills include tiny microprint that appears as a line to the naked eye,
but under magnification is actually lettering around the coat of
Benjamin Franklin or hidden in the number 100 that reads either USA 100
or The United States of America.
•The same optically variable
ink, or OVI, is used on the number 100 on the bottom right side of the
bill. Exclusively made for, and sold to, the United States, this OVI
ink gives the appearance of changing color when a banknote is viewed
from different angles.
•At least 19 different versions have been
printed, each corresponding to a tiny change in U.S. engraving plates —
an odd thing for any counterfeiter to do. Also, they show practically
invisible but intriguing additions.
•Stranger yet, the number of
supernotes found indicates that whoever is printing them isn’t doing so
in large quantities. Only $50 million worth of them have been seized
since 1989, an average of $2.8 million per year and not even enough to
pay for the sophisticated equipment and supplies needed to make them.
experts such as Thomas Ferguson, former director of the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing, said the supernotes are so good that they
appear to have been made by someone with access to some government’s
Some experts think North Korea does not have
the sophistication to make the bills; others suspect Iran and others
speak of criminal gangs in Russia or China.
Klaus Bender, the author of Moneymakers: The Secret World of Banknote Printing,
said the phony $100 bill is “not a fake anymore. It’s an illegal
parallel print of a genuine note.” He claims that the supernotes are of
such high quality and are updated so frequently that they could be
produced only by a U.S. government agency such as the CIA.
unsubstantiated as the allegation is, there is a precedent. An expert
on the CIA, journalist Tim Weiner, has written how the agency tried to
undermine the Soviet Union’s economy by counterfeiting its currency.
Making limited quantities of sophisticated counterfeit notes also
could help intelligence and law enforcement agencies follow payments or
illicit activities or track the movement of funds among unsavory
regimes, terrorist groups and others.
“As a matter of course, we
don’t comment on such claims, regardless of how ridiculous they might
be,” said CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield.
The lead U.S. agency in
combating counterfeiting, the Secret Service, declined repeated
requests for interviews for this story, as did the Federal Reserve
Board and the Treasury Department.
The case against Korea
years ago, as the administration’s campaign to isolate and financially
cripple North Korea’s dictatorship was heating up, President Bush
insisted, “We are aggressively saying to the North Koreans … don’t
counterfeit our money.”
Asked about his claim last summer, Bush told McClatchy Newspapers, “I’m not at liberty to speak about intelligence matters.”
of the administration’s public allegations about North Korean
counterfeiting trace to South Korea-based “experts” on North Korea who
arranged interviews with North Korean defectors for U.S. and foreign
newspapers. The resulting news reports were quoted by members of
Congress, researchers and Bush administration officials who were
seeking to pressure North Korea.
The McClatchy investigation,
which stretched across three continents, found that one source for
several stories, a self-described chemist named Kim Dong-shik, has gone
into hiding. A former roommate, Moon Kook-han, said Kim is a liar out
for cash who knew so little about American currency that he didn’t know
whose image is printed on the $100 bill.
The international police
agency Interpol issued in March 2005 an orange alert — at America’s
request — calling on member nations to prohibit the sale of banknote
equipment, paper or ink to North Korea.
A joint Secret
Service–Federal Reserve report to Congress in 2006 said the notes were
being “produced and distributed with the full consent and control” of
the North Korean government.
That July, at the request of the
Bush administration, Interpol assembled central bankers, police
agencies and banknote industry officials in Lyon, France, to make the
U.S. case against North Korea. But the Secret Service never provided
any details of the evidence it said it had, instead citing
“intelligence” and asking those assembled to accept the
administration’s claims on faith.
Interpol’s secretary general is
an American, Ronald K. Noble, a veteran of the Secret Service from 1993
to 1996. He declined to discuss the supernotes in detail, but recalled
the Secret Service made clear it was “not at liberty to share all of
the information” to which it had access.
In the late 1990s, North
Korean diplomats were caught passing supernotes in Asian capitals;
diplomatic immunity prevents prosecution.
The hardest evidence to
surface so far is the 2004 indictment of Sean Garland, a leader of an
Irish Republican Army splinter group, who about the same time allegedly
ferried more than $1 million in supernotes to Europe, mostly from the
North Korean Embassy in Moscow. Garland is now in the Republic of
Ireland, but the Irish Embassy said the U.S. hasn’t sought his
More recently, in August 2005, the Secret Service
announced two separate sting operations — Royal Charm and Smoking
Dragon, in which Chinese crime gangs were accused of smuggling
supernotes into New Jersey and Los Angeles.
David Asher, who was coordinator of a working group at the State
Department that collected details on North Korean criminal activities,
said his group turned up evidence of the counterfeiting and didn’t rely
on “intelligence” to make its case. Asher, now a researcher at the
Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy organization,
declined to provide any details.
John Bolton, former U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations and a hardliner on North Korea, told
McClatchy that he never saw hard evidence that Pyongyang was making the
supernotes. But he said the evidence that the North Koreans distributed
them is sufficient proof of bad behavior.
never really saw the intelligence myself to make an independent
judgment,” said Carl Ford, who quit as head of the State Department’s
intelligence bureau in 2003 because he challenged the administration’s
phony claim, based largely on defectors, that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction. The administration’s reluctance to disclose details on
North Korea “doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
In May 2007,
the Swiss federal criminal police, which is on the lookout for
counterfeit currency and has worked closely with U.S. financial
authorities, called on Washington to present more evidence. The
Bundeskriminalpolizei said it doubted that North Korea was behind the
“Using its printing presses dating back to the 1970s,
North Korea is today printing its own currency in such poor quality
that one automatically wonders whether this country would even be in a
position to manufacture the high-quality supernotes,’” the Swiss agency
The setting for the counterfeiting charges was the
effort to pressure the regime of Kim Jong-il to abandon its nuclear
Washington accused a tiny bank in the Chinese
enclave of Macau of helping North Korea launder counterfeit notes. The
U.S. Treasury blacklisted the Banco Delta Asia and issued a ruling in
March 2007 that effectively shut the bank down and froze $25 million in
North Korean funds.
When the U.S. relented, Macau lifted its
sanctions against the bank and allowed the bank to transfer $25 million
back to North Korea, although the Treasury Department, citing
“intelligence,” maintains the bank’s blacklisting.
Bush administration is no longer publicly accusing North Korea of
producing the supernotes and has dropped the subject from talks on
halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to State
McClatchy obtained an audit by the
international accounting firm Ernst & Young on behalf of the Macau
government that indicated only a single case of counterfeit notes was
found at Banco Delta Asia. This was in 1994, when the bank found the
notes and alerted authorities.
And those fakes did not originate in North Korea.
around the world are still seizing supernotes. The first one was
spotted by a sharp-eyed banker in the Philippines in 1989.
then, about $50 million worth have been found. “The seizures are not
necessarily indicative of the amount in circulation,” noted Bolton, who
accuses the Bush administration of going soft on North Korea.
oddities do not stop there. Whoever is making them seemed to
deliberately add minuscule extra strokes, as if trying to flag the
phony bills, the Swiss noted. For example, at the very tip of the
steeple of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the counterfeit bills have
a line along the left vertical edge that is not on the real bills.
One other interesting difference: The fakes lack microscopic ink
splotches that appear on real U.S. currency, which is made in large
press runs and stacked one sheet on another.
The ink’s maker, a
Swiss firm named Sicpa, mixes the ink at a secure U.S. government
facility. The highly specialized and regulated tint also is used on the
space shuttle’s windows. A Sicpa spokeswoman declined to discuss the
supernotes, but offered an important fact: “We ceased all OVI
deliveries (to North Korea) in early 2001, and later in the year all
security ink supplies.”
Ferguson, who ran the Bureau of Engraving
and Printing from 1998 to 2005, said: “They are not using somebody
else’s paper or bleaching the ink off of genuine notes. Someone
specifically made paper, which is a pretty big commitment.”
supernotes incorporate at least 19 running changes that the United
States has made to its engraving plates since 1989, from the names of
Treasury secretaries and treasurers to blowing up the image of Ben
Franklin on the $100 — something that most counterfeiters can’t or
don’t bother to do.
In 1996, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
redesigned the $100 bill, adding security features and an off-center,
larger Franklin portrait. In less than a year, new supernotes appeared.
goes way beyond what normal counterfeiters are able to do,” said
Bender, whose book first spotlighted the improbability of North Korean
supernotes. “And it is so elaborate it doesn’t pay for the
Via Kansas City Star