By Linus Höller*
Cover image: A North Korean diplomat walks past a portrait of Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea, in the country’s embassy in Berlin, Germany. (Linus Höller/TWU)
On the surface, Edward Hahn is just another businessman. 64 years old, he holds shares in various companies, has a wife and son and over 500 connections on LinkedIn. According to his social media, he enjoys working on his English and keeping informed about the latest developments at Shell and Microsoft. He is also an operative of North Korea’s intelligence agency.
Hahn’s real name isn’t Edward, but Han Hun Il – and according to the United Nations, he is a key player in North Korea’s vast network of clandestine overseas companies, which reaches around the world, collecting foreign currency for Kim Jong-Un and the elite in Pyongyang. What little information we have about Han mostly comes from intelligence by Western nations, provided to a panel of experts set up by the United Nations Security Council.
Pyongang vs. Sanctions
Hahn’s native North Korea is cash-strapped. A weak economy and sanctions put in place by the U.N., U.S., European Union and South Korea in response to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program, arms trafficking and human rights abuses have shut off most legal financial sources.
What limited funds North Korea has left over from its Stalinist economy and restricted international trade rarely trickle down to the people, said Ben Young, assistant professor at Dakota State University at the time of the interview.
“North Korea’s leadership choose to direct almost all its resources toward the military – making the population literally malnourished and stunted,” he said.
The international sanctions, progressively tightened since the country’s first nuclear test in 2006, now target almost all of the country’s trade, making most trade with the DPRK is illegal under international law.
“Some businesspeople will see this as an opportunity – there is a large risk premium that comes with dealing with a sanctioned entity,” said Daniel Wertz of the National Committee on North Korea.
This opens the door to people like Hahn, members of the North Korean elite who are permitted to leave the country as diplomats on behalf of Pyongyang. Using international clandestine networks, they are tasked with selling anything they can to make money for the government back home.
“We knows how to make the most of your money”
Corrupt countries or states with weak governance in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and most crucially, China are important hubs for North Korean business, explains Wertz, who researches DPRK involvement in less economically developed countries. The companies through which North Korea’s business runs operate from these countries on paper, but turn out to be entirely North Korean operations among closer inspection.
While the details vary from case to case, Wertz said that typically, a diplomat from the North Korean embassy will strike a deal with local businessmen willing to bend legal bounds, corrupt city officials or governments of friendly countries for the provision of goods, cheap laborers or services by North Korea. According to Thomas Fingar, the former chair of the National Intelligence Council under George Bush and professor at Stanford University, existing networks, many of which date back to the Cold War, are then used and expanded upon to fulfill these black market agreements.
Malaysia is one country that has maintained relatively warm relations with North Korea even recently. Hahn Hun Il’s empire is based in Kuala Lumpur and company filings, social media posts and intelligence reports show that he built up a network of at least dozens of companies starting in the 1990s, known under the collective name Malaysia Korea Partners Group. On their website, they advertised themselves as providing everything from medical equipment to construction to banking services (“We knows [sic] how to make the most of your money,” one banner reads).
MKP also claims to offer its services through subsidiaries in at least 20 countries, with a special focus on southern Africa. Governmental company records available from several of the countries and online activity by MKP’s subsidiaries suggest these venues are real – although the extent of their operations is hard to determine.
In Zambia, records show MKP subsidiaries opened a hospital, sold motorized scooters and on one of its Facebook pages, a firm even claims to have provided security services to none other than the U.N. itself.
MKP’s last survivor: A company doing web design & GPS trackers
The mighty MKP empire has largely collapsed after a panel of experts, appointed by the U.N.’s Security Council, in 2017 unearthed it as being run directly on behalf of North Korea to circumvent international restrictions. This coincided with the harshest round of sanctions imposed yet in response to nuclear and missile tests, backed even by North Korea’s most significant supporter, China. Ninety-five percent of North Korea’s bilateral trade is with China.
Despite all this, there is reason to believe that MKP is not entirely a thing of the past. The website is still online, if hidden behind a login box, and the email server, too, is still up and running.
“North Korea has a lot of front companies and they’ll change their name every other year to avoid tracking,” said Young, the Dakota State University assistant professor.
One MKP company stands out: Sosit Sdn. Bhd. Its website, although looking dated, is still up and running.
It also creates more questions than it answers: Sosit claims to provide an eclectic mix of products including web design, GPS vehicle trackers and even medical imaging software. According to an undated company brochure, it “envisions itself as a strong regional player providing international quality in services.”
Sosit proudly presents itself as a member of the MKP group of companies, its website being hosted on the same server, the email addresses linked and some of the phone numbers and addresses overlapping with other MKP companies which have since apparently shut down.
On its website, Sosit claims to have sold its services all over the world, including in Western countries like Australia and the U.K. The websites that Sosit claims to have built for clients in these countries are meanwhile defunct, but registries show they existed at one point, suggesting Sosit’s boasts to be at least plausible.
The Bulgaria connection
At first, Sosit, too, appeared to have fallen victim to the UN’s reinvigorated sanctions. A U.N. Security Council report from 2019 lists its status as “dissolved,” citing Malaysian company records. The records obtained during the investigation for this article in early 2021, however, listed it as “active.”
And somebody is paying the bills for the website to stay online. ICDSoft.com confirmed that their company does indeed still actively host Sosit and MKP’s web presence, but declined to provide any more information on where the money comes from. Sosit and MKP might have seen better days, but Hahn or his affiliates clearly still have some use for them.
There are a few things about Sosit’s online presence that don’t quite add up. For one, it lists among its partners ICC-NTA, a Floridian company that checks for building code violations. When asked about their company being listed as a “partner” on Sosit’s website, NTA’s president David Tompos responded that he didn’t know about it. “I don’t know why they link to our site – there never has been any association between Sosit and NTA,” he said by email, adding that the logo displayed on Sosit’s website wasn’t even the correct one.
Microsoft wasn’t able to confirm Sosit as a “Microsoft partner” either in time for publication, contrary to a claim made on Sosit’s website.
While the top-level domain is Malaysian like the company, the address listed for the website in the IP registry is in the Bulgarian capital Sofia – located within walking distance of the North Korean embassy there. The embassy itself is home to other DPRK overseas businesses operations, including a catering company and even a ballroom for rent on embassy grounds.
While the Bulgarian address alone does not prove a connection to the embassy, there are only a handful of Western countries that host North Korean diplomatic missions, and Bulgaria is one of them. Similar patterns have also been seen in other places like Berlin, where the residence of a North Korean diplomat is located just under one and a half kilometers from the North Korean embassy. The diplomat – Kim Song Ryong – was sent to Berlin as the economic attaché for Europe by the North Korean government.
Missiles in the embassy
The Berlin embassy has been used to make foreign cash by renting out a building to a hostel operator, and German authorities even intercepted a shipment of sanctioned parts to be used in the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction program, which were supposed to go through North Korea’s diplomatic channels in Berlin.
It’s part of a pattern of the DPRK repurposing connections that it established under ideological pretenses during the Cold War for more pragmatic purposes in the 21st century.
“I can’t imagine it’s costly to maintain these channels,” said Fingar, the former intelligence insider.
“The connections are in place – why give them up? In most places, the embassy staff can’t find anyone to talk to for normal diplomatic things anyway.”
In the 20th century, North Korea maintained close ties with Eastern European countries – like Bulgaria or East Germany – and developing countries with which it shared ideological similarities of anti-imperialism. The embassies and personal connections built this way outlasted the Cold War and continue to serve North Korea well.
“Like hitting a masochist”
Internationally isolated, pragmatism now dominates North Korea’s foreign policy. But the same pragmatism means that sanctions won’t move Kim Jong-Un to slow down his WMD program as the U.S. and its allies had hoped.
Fingar said that “imposing sanctions on North Korea is like hitting a masochist. They will say: Hit me again!” To the leadership in Pyongyang, the sanctions only serve to reaffirm the country’s 80-year doctrine of intense self-reliance and help justify the leadership’s actions to the North Korean population, Fingar said.
Regardless, the sanctions have hit North Korea hard, driving it to increasingly “entrepreneurial ways,” as Wertz put it. Data he analyzed shows North Korea’s legal trade has collapsed almost 75% from 2014 to 2019, with exports being particularly hard-hit, remaining at just over $250 million annually for the country of 24 million. Those figures are from before the COVID-19 pandemic; the virus put an abrupt stop to what little cross-border traffic with China remained.
The brunt of the blow is felt by the civilians, Fingar said.
“North Korea is pretty self-sufficient and they know how to marshal the resources for projects they deem important,” he explained.
“But they are also willing to inflict pain on their own population for it like few other countries would.”
The former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council said he doubts North Korea’s overseas companies make an immense amount of money.
“Even if we quadruple what we know, that’s still not a lot.”
However, they are still important for the regime, said Wertz: “They play a crucial role in filling the trade deficit and providing funds for Kim Jong-Un to spend on the military and keep the elite happy.”
Those elites, like Hahn, who are privileged enough to be allowed abroad by the North Korean regime are expected to contribute their part to maintaining the oppressive system back home.
“You are expected to do things for the motherland – so you do it,” said Fingar.
That holds true even when what they do is illegal – such as renting out embassy space for profit, a violation of the Vienna convention. According to Fingar, “it’s partly a loyalty test.”
In the end, the true mission of Sosit, MKP and all of its sister companies around the world is much less opaque than the networks they operate in: Prop up the Kim regime by keeping the Pyongyang elite happy and providing money for the country’s nuclear program. No matter what the methods.
*Linus Höller studies journalism, political science and international studies at Northwestern University and is a Farrell research fellow with the political science department at Northwestern.