North Korea in March restored a special department in the Workers Party codenamed Room 38 which manages leader Kim Jong-il's coffers and personal slush funds, it emerged Monday. The North last fall merged Room 38 with Room 39, which manages party slush funds.
"Rooms 38 and 39 were merged to simplify Kim Jong-il's slush funds," said a North Korean source. "But when it became difficult to secure hard currency due to international sanctions, Room 38 seems to have been restored because there was a feeling that Room 39 alone can't meet the need."
Room 38 is reportedly led by Kim Tong-il, who heads three regional departments in charge of earning hard currency.
Room 39 tries to maximize earnings from gold and zinc mining and farming and fisheries. It also manages stores and hotels exclusively for foreigners in Pyongyang. Room 39 seems to have suffered badly due to the recent suspension of inter-Korean trade. "Taesong Bank and Zokwang Trading, which received remittances from Mt. Kumgang tourism, are both controlled by Room 39, and is also in charge of the exports of agricultural and fisheries products," said a government source.
Kim Jong-il needs dollars to maintain the party elite's loyalty to him and his heir presumptive. He is said to have told party bigwigs in February, "From now on I will judge your loyalty based on the amount you contribute to the fund." His son Jong-un is also said to be amassing separate slush funds for his own use.
But international sanctions on exports of weapons, counterfeit dollars, fake cigarettes and drugs remain in place, and the United States is pushing ahead with additional financial sanctions over the North's sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March. Pyongyang was dealt a heavy blow in 2005 when the U.S. froze US$25 million in the Banco Delta Asia in Macao which was apparently for Kim's personal use.
Kim earlier this year appointed his high school friend Jon Il-chun head of Room 39. Jon was also named chairman of the National Development Bank, established early this year with a view to conducting normal international financial transactions to induce foreign investment. "North Korea seems to be planning to divert part of foreign investment to Kim's slush fund," said a government official.