N. Korean agent suspected of using Japanese firm to acquire foreign currency

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A North Korean agent based in China is suspected of using a Japanese trading company to obtain foreign currency, according to investigative sources.

Japanese police suspect that North Korea has turned to Japanese companies to skirt U.N. sanctions and are conducting an intelligence investigation.

It is the first time an intelligence investigation linked to North Korea that involves the acquisition of foreign currency has been conducted by Japanese authorities, which are working with overseas intelligence agencies.

It is the 54th North Korea-linked intelligence investigation overall.

According to investigative sources, the agent is a man in his 60s who uses the alias Ri Honam and he belongs to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s foreign intelligence service. He has several titles, including executive of North Korean External Economic Affairs Ministry, which has jurisdiction over foreign investment in North Korea.

Japan received information from South Korean authorities about Ri’s contact with a Japanese company about four years ago.

In 2020, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Public Security Bureau investigated a trading company in Tokyo on suspicion of violating the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, and discovered that Ri had been in contact with people at the trading company to obtain foreign currency.

Several documents were seized during searches at the trading company and other locations, such as contracts for the purchase and resale of Libyan heavy oil and Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) from around 2014 to 2018 and documents in which a percentage of the transaction amount was recorded as a brokerage fee for Ri.

Authorities believe that the brokerage fee may have been remuneration for lobbying government officials from Libya and other countries.

However, the investigation could not confirm that oil was actually exported to a third country. Analysis of bank accounts has also failed to corroborate the flow of money to Ri’s side.

Officials of the trading company traveled to Russia and other countries around the time of the contract, and there was also an email from officials telling Ri that a remittance would be delayed.

Based on these facts, the police determined that there was a high possibility that foreign currency acquisition activities were conducted.

According to corporate registration data, the trading company is engaged in “resource development, sales and import and export of oil and coal.”

In December, an official of the company admitted to knowing Ri, telling a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter, “I met him many times in China, [but] I don’t know what kind of person he is.” The official said, “We do not trade in Libyan heavy oil or Russian LNG, and we did not transfer any funds.”

Major figure

The North Korean man identified by investigators is believed to be a prominent agent who has been involved in operations against South Korea for more than 20 years.

Japanese and South Korean investigative authorities are closely watching his movements.

According to investigative sources in Japan and South Korea, the agent graduated from Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and joined an intelligence agency of the Workers’ Party of Korea in the 1990s that is now known as the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

He is currently based in Beijing and Shenyang, posing as a businessman.

According to South Korean media, prosecutors indicted a former employee of the South Korean intelligence agency in July 2010 for passing military secrets to Ri Honam in violation of the National Security Law.

In 2013, another case was uncovered in which Ri allegedly got collaborators to gather information on South Korean military equipment.

According to South Korea, Ri has used a number of aliases and more than ten phone numbers to disguise his identity.

In February last year, South Korean media reported that he had allegedly contacted an executive of the Korea Gas Corp. in Russia at the end of 2019. The official said that Ri had offered to buy Russian gas purchased by North Korea, but the official had refused.

An executive of a South Korean media outlet who has interviewed Ri several times said: “I got the impression that he is an energetic businessman, and I heard that he often goes on business trips to Russia, Singapore, and Thailand. He was also very knowledgeable about the economic situation in Japan.”

Japan does not have a law that directly controls espionage activities like South Korea’s National Security Law.

Police investigations have been conducted by uncovering agents in violation of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, which applies to foreigners, and by analyzing the statements of those involved and the items seized.