Ri Jong Ho, a high-profile North Korean who defected in 2014,worked for decades in what’s known as “Office 39.” The office is in charge of bringing in hard currency for the regime. Ri calls it a “slush fund for the leader and the leadership.” Some of Office 39’s profits also go to the country’s nuclear and missile programs
However, Ri told CNN “Office 39”, which has branches throughout North Korea, is not engaged in illicit activities He said that they were not under the purview of Office 39, but did not deny they occurred. (North Korea has been accused of crimes like hacking banks, counterfeiting currency, dealing drugs and even trafficking endangered species.)
Ri said much of North Korea’s hard cash is earned through exporting labor — the country sends workers across the globe and collects much of their pay, according to the UN — and exporting natural resources like coal, which China used to buy but has since stopped.
Analysts say Office 39 is likely now in the cross hairs of US President Donald Trump’s administration. The Trump team has made it clear that one of the ways it plans to deal with North Korea is to squeeze its revenue streams across the globe in order to pressure them into negotiations over their weapons programs.
Ri, who now lives in Washington DC, believes that secondary sanctions — targeting those who do business with North Korea — is the way to go, especially in China.
Beijing accounts for about 85% of North Korean imports in 2015, according to UN data, though Ri revealed that Pyongyang does import some oil from Russia. North Korean economist Ri Gi Song told CNN in February that China accounts for 70% of trade and that trade with Russia is increasing.