North Korea fires head of secret bureau 'Room 39'
Published Thursday, February 4, 2010 7:36AM EST
SEOUL, South Korea - The director of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's secret moneymaking "Room 39" bureau has been fired, a news report said Thursday. Analysts said the move may be a way to get around international sanctions.
Kim Dong Un, head of the infamous "Room 39" department said to control Kim's family enterprises, was replaced by his deputy, Jon Il Chun, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified source familiar with North Korean affairs.
The National Intelligence Service, Seoul's top spy agency, said it could not confirm the report. North Korean state media did not mention the personnel change.
Room 39 is described as the lynchpin of the North's so-called "court economy" centered on the dynastic Kim family. The department is believed to finance his family and top party officials with business ventures — some legitimate and some not — that include counterfeiting and drug-smuggling.
The bureau oversees some 120 trading companies and mines, accounting for some 25 percent of North Korea's total trade and employing up to 50,000 North Koreans, said Lim Soo-ho, a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute think tank.
He said the reported move to fire the Room 39 chief may be part of attempts to get around stringent international sanctions imposed on North Korea.
It was unclear which Room 39 companies or officials might be under UN sanctions, but North Korean firms frequently change names to evade scrutiny. And Kim, the Room 39 chief who was reportedly fired, had been blacklisted by the European Union in December, making his movements in Europe difficult and prompting the change in personnel, Yonhap said.
U.N. Security Council sanctions were tightened against North Korea after a May 2009 nuclear test. The order bans North Korea from exporting arms, calls for freezing assets, and forbids travel abroad for certain companies and individuals involved in the country's nuclear and weapons programs.
The report came as the United States renewed its call for North Korea to return to talks aimed at ending the country's nuclear weapons programs.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kurt Campbell made the comments Thursday during a meeting with South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek in Seoul, according to Hyun's office.
The North wants a peace treaty with the U.S. formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War as well as the lifting of sanctions before returning to the disarmament negotiations it abandoned last year. Campbell said no discussion about easing sanctions, a peace treaty or diplomatic relations can take place before the disarmament talks are back on track, according to Yonhap.
A military fracas off the west coast last week emphasized the precarious security situation in the region.
The North fired rounds of artillery toward its disputed western sea border with South Korea, prompting the South to fire warning shots. No injuries or damage were reported.
North Korea has designated five new "naval firing zones" — four off the west coast and one off the east coast — effective from Feb. 6-8, Yonhap reported later Thursday citing an unidentified intelligence source.
Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the report. It said Wednesday that the North had issued two separate "naval firing zones" off the west coast, effective from Feb. 5-8. Two other no-sail zones, also off the west coast, remain in place through March 29.