It’s no secret that North Korea is a bizarre place that’s sheltered off from the rest of the world. With the passing of Kim Jong Il, the ascension of Kim Jong Un, the Sony hack, and the numerous threats and missile tests, North Korea has been back in the spotlight in recent years. It’s created a sense of fear and a sense of extreme mystery that’s made people like me completely fascinated with the last old school Soviet-style regime. The mystery has led brave tourists on adventures into a live action Truman Show that unfolds before their eyes. But, inside the secretive hermit kingdom, there is one room that’s more secret than any other. It’s exclusive to everyone, excluding a few loyal individuals. It’s Room 39, and what’s inside is truly unknown to the outside world. For all we know, it could be a full scale replica of Willy Wonka’s chocolate room with a working chocolate river. Your guess is really as good as mine.
Room 39 is located within the Worker’s Party building in the heart of Pyongyang. According to some defectors who claim to have worked in Room 39, it was created by Kim Jong Il to buy his way up to the top of a Mafia style government with a slush fund. A lot of illicit activities are said to take place, all pertaining to money and money making activities. If you ever buy anything in North Korea, there’s a good chance that money goes to Room 39. The illegal activities that may take place include drug dealing, weapons dealings, the exportation of laborers to Russia, counterfeiting, and business scams. Some other not so illegal activities likely take place, too, like the export of ginger, mushrooms, low-grade gold, and a restaurant chain that serves native North Korean dishes.
A good portion of the finances help fuel the heir, Kim Jong Un, and his extravagant lifestyle. The finances also help keep elites silent with imported gifts and bribes that include Cognac, BMW cars, Rolex watches, and a laundry list of things that go way over my spending limit. As all of this takes place, the main body of the North Korean population is completely unaware. They are still hanging on to the “Arduous March” mentality set in place by Kim Il Sung back in the 90s during famines created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It hasn’t been all success and champagne in Room 39. A lot of countries have been catching on to the North Korean government, Japan, being one of them. The narcotics arm of the room mainly makes sales overseas by exporting crystal meth via Japanese ports. Defectors say that the Japanese desire for meth was incredibly high and that a lot of those funds were used to help the government stay afloat financially during the aforementioned famines. Japan officially blacklisted all North Korean goods and any vessels from their ports, unless the vessels were signaling signs of distress. Additionally, Austria investigated an event after one of the banks owned by the state was accused of money laundering and trading with radioactive substances. Perhaps the most impressive of all was the flawless US super-dollar. The North Korean government made one of the best counterfeit 100 dollar bills in history and it was widely circulated, giving them some money to recover in the early 2000s. This stopped when the US pressured the government to slow down their illicit ways.
In recent years, Room 39’s illicit activities are seeming to slow down as the rest of the world is wary of any business dealings with North Korea. On the flipside, tourism has reached an all time high, with events like the Pyongyang Marathon opening up to the public, and with foreign investors finally starting to make headway into prying open the kingdom that the Kim family has such a tight grasp on. Maybe Room 39’s finances will shrink as the honest money made by international investors rises. It’s all speculation, though. There aren’t too many people who really know the whole truth, and if you don’t get inside Room 39, you won’t either.
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