Well-connected dollar trader in Chongjin arrested

Dollar traders in North Korea typically offer kickbacks to the local security officials, but this trader reportedly refused to do so

A dollar trader in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, who is also the wife of a Department 11 agent, was recently arrested after a lengthy period of surveillance from the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Daily NK has learned. 

“Department 11” is an agency of the North Korean communist party that manages agents who are involved in espionage operations in South Korea. 

“A person in her early 50s with the surname Hwang had been working as a dollar trader, but is now in a serious predicament after being caught red-handed following a stakeout,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 31. 

According to the source, Hwang had earned the contempt of the MSS for acting with impunity while facilitating foreign currency transactions between individuals. Such transactions are considered illegal by North Korean authorities. 

Dollar traders in North Korea typically offer kickbacks to the MSS to avoid interference with their business, but Hwang had relied on the connections of her husband to avoid showing “respect” to MSS agents. 

MSS agents were reportedly displeased with Hwang’s disregard for them while flagrantly flouting the law. She had been under surveillance for more than three years as the MSS waited for an opportunity to catch her in the act. 

On several occasions, MSS agents and informants posed as ordinary citizens and went to her house seeking to exchange dollars, but Hwang did not take the bait. This further angered MSS agents, who became desperate to apprehend her.

CHECKMATE

Early this month, agents staking out Hwang’s house noticed an officer from the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s Chongjin Liaison Office – a longtime client of Hwang’s – carrying a bag into her house accompanied by Chongjin Port trade officials. 

The Chongjin Liaison Office manages a fleet of vessels reportedly used to spirit spies in and out of South Korea along with the smuggling of drugs, gold and weapons.

The MSS immediately staged a raid on her house and they found two backpacks containing dollars and North Korean won hidden in a closet. The officers then launched a tirade of verbal abuse against Hwang (shouting: “Isn’t this dirty money from the South Korean National Intelligence Service?” and “You money traders must really look down on the MSS”). Hwang was arrested on the spot.

One notable feature of this case is the power struggle taking place between the Reconnaissance General Bureau’s Chongjin Liaison Office and the MSS. 

“The liaison office has been throwing their weight around, claiming that Hwang cannot be treated with impunity because her husband is a Department 11 agent,” said the source. “The liaison office is refusing to take the MSS’s actions lying down, and attempting to use their authority to control the situation.”

The MSS has thrown down the gauntlet in response, making it clear that they intend to pursue a legal penalty for Hwang and arguing that links to Department 11 do not give individuals the right to ignore North Korean communist party guidelines and act however they please. 

Many observers aware of the case believe, however, that the MSS has its hands tied because of the need to tread carefully when it comes to handling Department 11 agents and their families. 

“Although the MSS caught Hwang red-handed, the agency appears to be on the losing end of this power struggle, which has made it even more desperate,” the source said. “Local residents are watching with bated breath, hoping that they can avoid getting caught up in any collateral damage in the battle between the two powerful entities.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Kim Yoo Jin is one of Daily NK's freelance journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.