New $100 bill: why North Korea won't be very happy

New $100 bill is aimed at staying ahead of counterfeiters. First and foremost, impoverished North Korea.

Matt Rourke/AP
A new $100 bill featuring Benjamin Franklin is illuminated from behind at the Franklin Institute, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Philadelphia. The new $100 bill, sporting high-tech features designed to thwart counterfeiters, enters circulation Tuesday.

Ben Franklin is about to cause a lot more headaches than you might expect in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

The Federal Reserve on Tuesday began circulating a redesign of a US currency note that may be the most counterfeited monetary unit in the world: the $100 bill.

Graced with Mr. Franklin’s bemused gaze on one side and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on the other, the bill is the first new version of the C-note to be distributed by US monetary administrators in a decade. The note features a woven “3-D security ribbon” running vertically along the left side of Franklin’s face, with liberty bells that turn into 100s as you move the bill side to side. It also has a liberty bell in an inkwell that shifts in color as you tilt it.

These changes add to other longstanding security features, like microscopic text woven into Franklin’s colonial collar and bordering the golden feather.

"The new design incorporates security features that make it easier to authenticate, but harder to replicate," Federal Reserve Board Gov. Jerome H. Powell said in a statement. "As the new note transitions into daily transactions, the user-friendly security features will allow the public to more easily verify its authenticity."

The Fed, along with the Treasury Department, the Secret Service, and other agencies, has been redesigning all American currency bills since 2003, in an effort to stay ahead of counterfeiters, whose work has gotten easier as desktop publishing software has gotten more powerful and laser printers and photocopiers more capable.

While currency counterfeiting may be known in the popular imagination as the work of backroom, ink-stained criminals, impoverished North Korea has long been known for its creative efforts to generate badly-needed hard currency. The totalitarian state has been all but quarantined from the global economy, isolated by sanctions and other measures to punish it for its nuclear programs and missile proliferation efforts.

A combination of famine and floods in the 1990s that may have killed as much as 10 percent of the population, combined with the sharp post-cold war decrease in aid from Moscow and Beijing, brought the Kim regime to the point of desperation, and prompted some tinkering with the Korean currency, the won, that only worsened matters for average Koreans.

Even before the devastating famine, counterfeiting a variety of goods was central to revenue generation, helping to build a “palace economy” to ensure the loyalty of North Korea’s elites, says Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean expert and assistant professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“North Korea is unique in that it is the only country in the world to manufacture cigarettes, drugs like Viagra, hard currency; this is an essential instrument of regime preservation,” Mr. Lee says.

“The regime relies on criminal activities, because it has no other means for generating revenue,” he says.

North Korean forging prowess is so advanced that US law enforcement officials have dubbed the fake, “nearly perfect” $100 bills “supernotes.” According to a 2009 Congressional Research Service report, at least $45 million in supernotes of North Korean origin have been detected in circulation, and Pyongyang may earn between $15 million and $25 million a year from counterfeiting.

North Korean diplomats often play roles in getting fake bills into circulation, lugging suitcases packed with bad money to their home embassies, then spending the bills in small, innocuous amounts in stores, casinos, restaurants, or elsewhere.

According to the Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo, one North Korean embassy in Eastern Europe generated US$30 million by exchanging counterfeit notes a year.

Lee added that it was only a matter of time before the North Koreans mastered the new design. In the meantime, sham Marlboros and other cigarette brands were likely to remain a more lucrative means for revenue-generation:

“You just put wrap up some tobacco in paper, put them in boxes, and ship them out. No one can tell,” he says. “The revenue is pretty sweet. With fake $100 bills you have to be careful, especially when government officials are using them abroad, since they’re being watched all the time.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to New $100 bill: why North Korea won't be very happy
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/2013/1008/New-100-bill-why-North-Korea-won-t-be-very-happy
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe