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Event Recap: Office 39: North Korean Shadow Operations for Sanctions Evasion

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Event Recap: Office 39: North Korean Shadow Operations for Sanctions Evasion

In early October, CRDF Global partnered with Ri Jong Ho and Hyun Seung Lee to hold an event titled Office 39: North Korean Shadow Operations for Sanctions Evasion as part of our Thought Leadership Event series. Office 39—officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers Party of Korea—is a secretive North Korean state apparatus that seeks to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the DPRK’s WMD program through covert overseas business operations. Ri Jong Ho is a former senior North Korean economic official who worked with Office 39 to procure income for the Kim regime. Hyung Seung Lee similarly served in a branch of Office 39, as a Deputy General Manager of one of their shell companies in China. Following a series of brutal purges by Kim Jong Un, both defected to South Korea in late 2014 and now reside in the Washington D.C. area where they work as consultants on North Korean affairs.

This seminar presented a unique opportunity for participants to engage in dialogue with Ri Jong Ho and Hyun Seung Lee about their time in Office 39 and the inner workings of North Korea’s WMD program. With the help of CRDF Global’s own Tom Callahan as moderator and Yonghwa Lee as interpreter, participants were able to ask questions to our guests and hold a productive conversation about such topics as the role of cryptocurrency in Office 39 activities, sanctions evasions methods and enforcement strategies, important countries in which the DPRK operates, DPRK-China relations, and the role of human rights in overseas labor operations.

Ri Jong Ho’s public interviews were published in Washington Post: “He ran North Korea’s secret moneymaking operation. Now he lives in Virginia” and CNN: “North Korean money man reveals smuggling operations.” Hyun Seung Lee was also quoted in BBC News: “The Lazarus heist: How North Korea almost pulled off a billion-dollar hack” and New Yorker: “The Incredible Rise of North Korea’s Hacking Army.”