UNITED NATIONS — As federal investigators examine how the leading U.N. agency in North Korea illegally kept 35 counterfeit American $100 bills in its possession for 12 years, documents indicate that more officials were aware of the existence of the fake currency — and earlier — than the agency has reported.
Spokesmen for the United Nations Development Program have said top officials at the agency's New York headquarters learned in February that their safe in Pyongyang contained the counterfeit bills and immediately reported it to American authorities. But several documents shown recently to The New York Sun indicate that higher-ups knew much earlier that the safe held counterfeit money.
The documents are part of a worldwide reporting system that allows the agency to keep track of the contents of its office safes.
One "safe contents count record" — shown to the Sun with the stipulation that the paper omit such details as the exact issuing date, which was before February — confirms that fake money was in the safe in Pyongyang. According to a source familiar with the system, this and similar records were filed with UNDP headquarters twice a year.
Internal UNDP communication shown to the Sun also indicates that in at least one incident, a Pyongyang office manager reported the existence of the counterfeit money to his successor. Similar reports were filed with the seven managers that have served in North Korea since 1995. Some of these managers have returned to UNDP headquarters since then and now serve as top officials there.
The Secret Service and federal prosecutors in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York are investigating the matter and have sought out at least 13 UNDP officials for interviews. But questions about diplomatic immunity and whether lawyers can represent the officials during those interviews have yet to be resolved.
"We are cooperating with the Southern District," a senior U.N. official said yesterday, and added, "We are currently working out the modalities." The official, who requested anonymity because the matter is under investigation, said that in the past, immunity has been lifted only when criminal indictments are handed out.
According to Title 18, Section 472 of the U.S. Code, whoever "keeps in possession or conceals any falsely made, forged, counterfeited, or altered obligation or other security of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both."
The safe contents record shown to the Sun includes such items as a "petty cash box," its keys, a zip drive containing finance-software data backup, an official U.N. stamp, identity cards, a log for checks, and a long list of checkbooks in euros, dollars, and North Korean won. One line in the record itemizes $3,500 in "Counterfeit US Dollar Bank Notes (given by FTB)."
A UNDP spokesman, David Morrison, declined to provide the Sun with the agency's rules governing the tracking of safe contents and how regional offices report on them, citing the ongoing probe.
Mr. Morrison explained the presence of the counterfeit currency in the safe by saying an unidentified Egyptian consultant did some work for the UNDP in North Korea and as payment was given a check equal to $3,500 in North Korean won. The Egyptian consultant then cashed the check at the Foreign Trade Bank in Pyongyang, received American bills, and left the country.
Once abroad, the Egyptian consultant tried to deposit the bills, but was told they were suspect. He then returned the bills to the UNDP office in Pyongyang, where they were kept since 1995 in a safe, unnoticed, until February, the spokesman said.
The February date came shortly after the Wall Street Journal published a story, "Cash for Kim," which reported that the UNDP violated its own rules by providing the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, with hard currency. The agency's board of directors, under American pressure, then instructed the UNDP to suspend its North Korean operation, and it was shuttered March 1.
UNDP officials concede that the increased outside scrutiny that resulted from the Journal article could have led the agency to examine its Pyongyang office more closely, which may have led to the discovery of the counterfeit cash.
Critics, however, allege that top officials deliberately concealed the existence of the counterfeit currency out of concern that the operation would be shut down, and that they reported it to the American authorities only after they realized that it would be suspended anyway.