In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Spies And Soju: North Korea's Man In Manhattan

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AP Photo

Il Woo Park is a 64-year-old South Korean national with legal permanent resident status in the United States. According to court documents, news reports, and filings with the government, Park has had extensive dealings with North Korea, South Korea -- and the FBI. His unique relationships with the United States and the two Koreas remain murky and perhaps unprecedented.

Park ran a company called Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., Inc., out of his small apartment in the neighborhood of Inwood, according to court documents. Park's business was based on what he regularly described as extensive connections to the North Korean government. However, as Park was making deals to bypass strict economic sanctions and import North Korean booze into the United States he was also apparently working with a network of spies from North Korea's sworn enemy, South Korea.

In 2007, Park ended up in federal court charged with multiple counts of lying to FBI agents who were investigating South Korean spies living covertly in the United States. His case involved secret phone lines that even the FBI was unable to identify, a meeting at Grant's Tomb in Manhattan -- and envelopes of cash. Park eventually pleaded guilty to all of the charges but was sentenced only to probation. The plea agreement remains sealed. After his conviction Park was still allowed to travel back and forth between New York and Pyongyang even while on probation.

North Korea's response to Park's alleged work with South Korean spies was perhaps even more unusal than the gentle handling he received from the United States. At his trial, Park admitted to using his business trips to North Korea to obtain information for South Korean intelligence agencies. In spite of this, the reclusive North Korean government continued to allow him into the country and even deepened their relationships with his business. In 2011, North Korea signed an agreement to have Park's company develop a troubled mountain resort about 40 miles away from Pyongyang and promote it as a tourist destination.

James Person is a historian at the Wilson Center in Washington who runs the think tank's North Korea International Documentation Project, an archive of official documents detailing the country's diplomatic and military history. After hearing Park's story, Person described as unprecedented Park's apparent ability to maintain relationships with officials in North Korea after his ties South Korean intelligence were exposed.

"I've seen some interesting things in the diplomatic record, especially of North Korea's former communist allies, but nothing like that before," said Person.

Park's company, Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., Inc., was founded in 2004 in Manhattan. That year, Park gave an interview to North Korea's state-run news agency, KCNA, in which he announced his plans to sell North Korean made soju, a traditional liquor, in the United States.

Park's "Pyongyang soju" hit American store shelves in mid-2007. Under the U.S. economic sanctions on North Korea, it is prohibited for "goods, services, and technology from North Korea" to "be imported into the United States, directly or indirectly" without a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. The Treasury Department would not confirm whether Park received permission to import his North Korean soju, citing a policy of not commenting on "specific license approvals or denials for privacy and trade secret reasons." However, when he started his soju business Park told media outlets in China and North Korea he had a license to sell his liquor.

A few months after he began selling his soju, on July 18, 2007, Park was arrested by FBI agents. In a criminal complaint and supporting affidavit (which can be seen below), FBI Special Agent William Smith described how Park had extensive relationships with suspected South Korean agents and lied to the FBI about these connections on three separate occasions in 2005 and 2007. Smith described one episode in March 2007 when Park was interviewed by FBI agents and shown photographs of four South Koreans whom he denied knowing. Immediately afterwards, Smith said, "Park drove directly from his meeting with me and other FBI personnel in Manhattan to a restaurant in New Jersey" where he met with one of the South Koreans he had just denied knowing. Court documents did not name the South Koreans tied to Park, but identified them as "intelligence officers of the South Korean government."

Though he wasn't forthcoming about his ties to South Korea, Smith said Park touted his relationships with North Korean officials when he spoke to the FBI. According to Smith, Park's first meeting with the FBI occurred on August 22, 2005. Smith said Park chose to meet outside of Grant's Tomb and brought up his connections to North Korea when asked about his relationships with the South Korean spies.

"Park stated that he did not understand why he was being asked questions about South Korean officials and not about North Korean officials," said Smith. "Park further stated that a meeting between him and the United States was long overdue, because he could act as a 'go-between' between the U.S. and North Korea, that he frequently traveled to North Korea, including to places that no foreign visitors were allowed, and that he had access to high-ranking officials in North Korea."

In another meeting on January 15, 2007, Smith described Park boasting to FBI agents that he was "important to the North Korean government."

Park also discussed his North Korean connections in recorded conversations with the South Koreans. In 2005, Smith said Park told one of the South Korean intelligence officers that "North Korean officials" had asked him to "bring to them certain items, including insecticides, anesthetics, and veterinary products on an upcoming trip to North Korea." On February 12, 2007, Smith said the FBI heard a conversation between Park and an unspecified "individual" and "was asked whether it was a good idea for certain North Korean officials to attend a certain church."

"Park stated that he did not think it was a good idea, since Park knew that many South Korean consulate personnel and intelligence officers attended that church," Smith said.

During a bail hearing on July 19, 2007, the day after Park's arrest, federal prosecutor Edward O'Callaghan described statements he said Park made after being arrested in which he, essentially, confessed to working with South Korean intelligence officers.

"The defendant admitted to meeting with South Korean officials over the course of the last several years, and those officials are known to the FBI to be intelligence officers of the South Korean government," O'Callaghan said of Park. "The defendant admitted to accepting from those officials taskings to obtain information from North Korean officials, and to deliver that information to the South Korean officials with whom the defendant dealt. This defendant admitted to traveling to North Korea at the behest of South Korean officials to, again, obtain additional information, and to provide that information to South Korean officials."

O'Callaghan went on to say Park admitted to being paid by South Korean officials for this work and that it represented "almost the totality of his income." Court documents also described envelopes containing thousands of dollars in cash that were found during the search of Park's apartment. Despite his payments from the South Koreans and his soju business, at the start of his trial, Park filled out a financial affidavit identifying himself as unemployed and without any "cash on hand or money in savings or checking accounts."

On Dec. 14, 2007, Park entered a guilty plea. Park's plea deal was immediately sealed and removed from the court record. The three counts of making false statements carried a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison with maximum fines of about $250,000 and three years of "supervised release." He was subsequently sentenced to 18 months' probation and ordered to pay $300 in "criminal monetary penalties," on April 18, 2008.

During the time Park was on probation, the government joined his attorneys in requesting for him to be allowed to make five trips to North Korea and China. Park was allowed to travel to North Korea while on probation in spite of the fact that at the initial bail hearing O'Callaghan requested he be denied bail "based on both risk of flight and danger to the community." When characterizing Park as a flight risk, O'Callaghan specifically cited the fact Park made at least "fifty trips to both China and the Korean Peninsula over the last several years."

Both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment on the treatment Park received or the circumstances of his deal with the U.S. government. North Korea's mission to the United Nations, in New York City, also declined to comment on Park or his case. "I'm sorry to say that we aren't receiving the questions from the foreign press," the man who answered the mission's phone said before hanging up.

Not only was Park allowed to re-enter North Korea after publicly admitting to working with the South Korean government, he also continued his liquor business. According to Bloomberg, in August 2012, Park visited Pyongyang and extended his soju deal through 2016.

Park also expanded his business relationship with the North Korean regime beyond liquor. According to documents filed with the Department of Justice's Foreign Agents Registration Unit, Park entered into an agreement in July 2011 with the North Korean government to have his company, Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., Inc., help develop a mountain resort with a unique and violent history (Park's FARA filing is included below this story).

"The Directorate for Keumgangsan Special international Tourism District ... and the Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A. Inc. ... have agreed to develop the Keumgangsan area, a world-famous mountain, into a special world-class international tourism district," said an English-language translation of the memorandum of understanding between Park and North Korea that was submitted to the DOJ's FARA unit. (Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, persons in the United States acting as agents of foreign principals are required to disclose to their activities to the Justice Department in publicly available filings.)

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Also known as Mount Kumgang, the resort was, for a time, one of the few holes in the iron curtain that normally surrounds North Korea. In 1989, North Korea teamed up with South Korean to develop resort facilities at the mountain, the first business project between the two nations since the 1940s. Eventually, Mount Kumgang welcomed international visitors who used U.S. dollars, providing a rare source of international currency for the isolated North Korean regime. In 2008, the harsher reality of tensions on the Korean Peninsula intruded on the resort when a South Korean housewife visiting Mount Kumgang was shot and killed by North Korean troops after she wandered onto a restricted beach. When North Korea refused to investigate the shooting, South Korea retaliated by banning its citizens from traveling to the resort. North Korea fired back by seizing property at the resort that was owned by South Korean businesses.

Park's contract with the North Korean government stipulated he would develop plans for a "casino business" and other facilities at Mount Kumgang. He also was tasked with mounting "advertising campaigns" and distributing "informational materials" to promote the resort.

When Park signed the deal for Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., Inc., he also indicated his company's director of marketing and planning, Simon T. Bai, would be working with him on the project. In an interview with Bloomberg published in December, Bai described the company's work as an effort to revitalize the resort in the wake of the shooting.

"We're doing this with hopes that resuming tours to Geumgang could help open North Korea up, and thereby help unite the two Koreas again," Bai said.

Bai did not respond to calls to his home address to ask about his work with Park. Though the Justice Department said Park is still listed as an active foreign agent, his company is listed as inactive in New York, having been dissolved by state authorities in July 2012 for failure to file returns or to pay taxes or fees.



TPM also attempted to contact Park to have him shed light on his work and his unique relationship with North Korea and the United States. An older woman opened the door halfway when we visited his apartment on a residential block in Inwood Tuesday morning. As a small dog barked in the background, she told us he was not home and would be traveling until later in the week. We asked whether he was in North Korea.

"I can't tell you," she said.

The woman asked us to leave a business card so Park could contact us upon his return. As of this writing, he has not responded.

United States of America v. Park Il Woo

Il Woo Park's FARA Registration Statement

Il Woo Park's Foreign Agents Registration Act Filing

(Mount Kumgang Photo: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)