By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for Coinweek …….
A long-running counterfeit currency saga, one that originated in North Korea during the 1970s and affected countless people in many nations around the world, seems to have ended. Or has it? Over the course of a few decades, millions of dollars in counterfeit U.S. $50 and $100 bills were forged in North Korea and distributed throughout the world. The hot money certainly didn’t look fake; in fact, the counterfeit notes could even fool many anti-forgery machines.
They even earned a dubious nickname: “superdollars”, or “supernotes”.
The supernotes circulated for perhaps years before the world community caught on. In 1989, a teller at the Central Bank of the Philippines in Manila saw something unusual about a U.S. $100 bill and set it aside for further inspection. The bill was submitted to the United States Secret Service, and the bill, codenamed C-1434, set off an international investigation that lasted throughout the ’90s and into the ’00s.
As investigators quickly learned, the quality of the counterfeit $50 and $100 bills was greater than virtually anything that had crossed their paths before. There are several reasons for this: the North Korean supernotes were produced on a medium made from the same composition as authentic U.S. paper currency, a blend consisting of 75-percent cotton and 25-percent linen fiber paper. Furthermore, they were manufactured by the same intaglio printing presses employed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the notes bore the same red and blue fibers, watermark, and security strip that genuine paper currency contains.
Investigators traced the proliferation of the North Korean supernotes to the late 1970s. It was an era when North Korea was defaulting on its world debts, so North Korean officials advocated the creation of fake money. While the existence of counterfeit currency is in itself a crime that riled the nerves of the U.S. government, it became apparent that some of this fake currency may have been used to fund terrorist activities against the United States and its allies.
It’s difficult to ascertain what specific activities these $50 and $100 supernotes may have helped facilitate. What is known, however, is that supernotes were in the possession of members of the Official Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary faction group that broke off from the Irish Republican Army. Sean Garland, who led the OIRA before becoming president of The Worker’s Party of Ireland, asked the Soviet Union for cash and trained hands to help keep the Worker’s Party afloat during tough economic times.
Garland allegedly sold thousands of dollars in counterfeit supernotes to a South African man in the 1990s, leading to an international investigation of Garland’s activities. Secret Service personnel learned of trips Garland took to Moscow, and on one occasion spied Garland and his wife traveling to the North Korean Embassy in Russia. U.S. officials learned that Garland’s attempts to trade supernotes would include transactions with unscrupulous individuals in a host of nations, including Poland, Belarus, Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic.
In 2005, police finally arrested Garland on money laundering charges. Following his release on bail, Garland went to the Republic of Ireland, protesting his innocence and claiming that he would not receive a fair trial in a U.S. court. The Irish judge overseeing the case wouldn’t extradite Garland but said prosecution could occur within Ireland.
Garland wasn’t the only target on the Secret Service’s list of suspects – so, too, were numerous individuals in Canada, Taiwan, China, and even the United States, where smugglers went to great lengths to conceal the funny money in books. Many of the suspects were arrested on a yacht in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during a fake wedding that the FBI arranged. Investigators would trace the money to Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, China, which at that time held $25 million in North Korean assets and was accused of helping distribute the superdollars.
BDA wasn’t the only bank with links to North Korea, but it was one of the largest banks in Macau. Thus it offered the United States the single target with the most potential influence in shutting down the money laundering operations. Other Macau banks severed their ties with North Korea under fears of similar U.S. sanctions. Interestingly, the U.S. intervention on the BDA was permitted by U.S. law under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, which allows U.S. law enforcement to intervene in foreign banking operations when “rogue states” or “state sponsors of terrorism” attempt to interfere with the global financial system. Subsequently, these actions led to the U.S. Treasury requesting all U.S. banks to sever existing ties to the BDA.
Following the string of arrests and sanctions in connection with the North Korean supernotes in 2005, the counterfeit U.S. currency from North Korea seems to have virtually evaporated. Between 2006 and 2009, only five incidences of supernotes have surfaced. The 2011 death of Kim Jong-Il, who spearheaded the creation of the North Korean supernotes decades ago, may have also brought an end to the counterfeit paper currency. Meanwhile, the United States has adopted new anti-counterfeiting measures on its $100 bills, including the introduction of a color-changing image of the Liberty Bell on the obverse of the bill and a 3D ribbon that changes in appearance as the bill is tiled at different angles.
As the North Korean supernotes recede from circulation, it is reasonable to wonder what North Korea might be up to now. Do any notes remain unseized? Are far more clandestine versions of the supernotes in production? When it comes to North Korea these days, there seem to be many more questions than answers.
Perhaps more spurious paper currency is sneaking under the proverbial–and possibly literal–radar as the world worries about the far more alarming headlines of North Korean nuclear activity.