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View more articles by Justin Rohrlich
Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
A few days shy of exactly five years ago, the Kim Jong Il regime hired Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., a two-man business run from an apartment in Upper Manhattan, to help revive its now-shuttered Mount Kumgang resort. Attracting visitors would be a herculean task, as North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean tourist four years earlier who accidentally wandered into a restricted area.
“The Directorate for Keumgangsan Special International Tourism District (hereinafter ‘A’) and the Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A. Inc. (hereinafter ‘B’) have agreed to develop the Keumgangsan area, a world-famous mountain, into a special world-class international tourism district, and to jointly engage in the Keumgangsan international tourism business under the principles of ‘voluntariness, trust, equality, and reciprocity,’” read the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Korea Pyongyang U.S.A. and the North Korean government dated August 23, 2011 — or, as the MoU noted, “Juche Year 100.”
In official documents filed four months later with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A. president Il Woo “Steve” Park, a permanent U.S. resident born in South Korea, listed his sole employee as Simon T. Bai, also of New York. Their North Korean counterparts were identified as Kim Kwang Yoon, director of the General Scenic Spots Development and Guidance Bureau, and Ri Chung Bok, deputy director of the “Guidance Bureau of the Special Zone for International Tour of Geumgansan.”
FARA, per the Department of Justice, “requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal.” Park’s registration documents attested that Park and Bai, who was described as Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A.’s marketing director, would “engage in all aspects of developing tourism package, guide, and promotions. These tasks include negotiation of prices, arrangements of hotels, and advertising.” The MoU they signed with the North Koreans, however, suggested a deeper level of involvement than simply spreading the word:
“In order to vitalize tourism in the Keumgangsan area, ‘B’ shall make preparations and commence a casino business, a convenience facility to be used by tourists, and actively cooperate with local studies by ‘A’ on other countries and regions.”
According to the MoU, Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A. — “B” — agreed to “conduct with ‘A’” — the North Koreans — “negotiations to purchase real estate and tourist facilities within the Special District, and discuss and take action regarding the ways and methods thereof.” It was followed by an unusual clause, even for North Korea: “‘A’ shall guarantee the personal safety and convenience of the tourism study delegation personnel on their visit to the DPRK without discrimination regardless of nationality or affiliation, including South Korea.”
“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 told Bloomberg News at the time. “Isn’t this the kind of business that’s really worth doing?”
Ultimately, it wasn’t. While Park’s FARA registration reveals that Korea Pyongyang U.S.A.’s contract has been extended through December 30, 2016, Bai told NK News he has since distanced himself from the business altogether.
“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”
“On May 18, 2013 we received a letter from the U.S. government saying don’t make any more business with North Korea,” he said by phone from his home in Fresh Meadows, Queens. “When the U.S. government tells you not to do something, you don’t do it.”
That’s when Bai, 71, says he parted ways with Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A, and has been doing what he called “general work” ever since. He has no plans to go back to North Korea, or to partner with anyone there again, anytime soon. Still, Bai “somewhat expects” further contact from American officials could come at any time.
Park, who declined to be interviewed with a terse email stating simply, “N0 Thank you [sic],” began his professional relationship with North Korea more than a decade ago.
PYONGYANG TO NEW YORK
In 2004, North Korea’s state-run news announced, “Pak Il U, 55, a Korean resident in the U.S who is manager of the Dong Woo U.S.A. Inc., said that Pyongyang commodities would be sold in the U.S., in an interview with the KCNA at the Koryo Hotel when he was visiting Pyongyang.” (Public records list at least 10 different variations on the spelling of Park’s name, including Ilwood Park, Ilwoo Woo Park, and Woo II Park. However, according to New York State incorporation records, Dong Woo U.S.A. was dissolved on September 23, 1998 — six years before the KCNA article appeared.)
“I have spent much time and made efforts to realize this its realization,” KCNA quoted Park as saying. “Pyongyang is the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. When people drink Pyongyang Liquor, a traditional liquor of Korea, they will think of Korea and chat about the history and traditions of the nation. That’s why I made this decision.”
When people drink Pyongyang Liquor, a traditional liquor of Korea, they will think of Korea and chat about the history and traditions of the nation
It continued: “Moreover, he explained his plan to sell various kinds of North Korean drinks including blueberry wine in the United States, not limiting himself to the sale of Pyongyang Liquor. Lastly he called upon all Koreans abroad to make a tangible contribution to the reunification of the nation, those with money donating money, those with strength giving strength and those with knowledge dedicating their knowledge to the cause, as was said by President Kim Il Sung.”
Three years later, South Korean media placed Park in North Korea to send 64,800 bottles of “Pyongyang Liquor” — traditional Korean soju — to the U.S. in three cargo containers. According to the Hankook Ilbo newspaper, Park visited the North Korean port of Nampo between April 4-12 to supervise. During that time, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly feted Park with a special ceremony to honor the shipment.
“On April 9th, the first ship [sic] of Pyongyang Soju left Nampo Harbor for the U.S. and is expected to hit U.S. markets by June,” said the Daily NK. “This liquor will arrive in the U.S. at the end of this month passing through China and South Korea and reach 5 different cities including New York and Virginia for its first trial in sales.”
However, this timeline is contradicted by shipping records obtained by NK News from Panjiva, a company which tracks global trade. Their data shows the first container of Pyongyang Soju — 1,680 cases (40,320 375 ml bottles) — was in fact shipped to the Port of New York from Dalian, China on April 19, 2008, more than a year later. An additional 840 cases (20,160 375 ml bottles) arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, from Busan, South Korea on September 4, 2008; on September 6, another 1,680 cases arrived in the Port of New York from Dalian.
PRELUDE TO PROBLEMS
Pyongyang Soju initially retailed for $10 a bottle. It is still available in a number of stores in the New York area for less than half that, which suggests it wasn’t a big seller — a hypothesis confirmed by Bai, who described the undertaking as something of a lost cause.
“It was a venture, not a business,” he said.
Things worked out even less well for Park, although his problems began at least a year before the soju deal.
In 2003, as revealed in an affidavit filed by investigators, the FBI’s counterintelligence division began looking into “certain individuals acting as agents of South Korea without having notified or registered with the proper authorities.” Park was first spotted in 2004 by FBI agents when he met in Flushing, Queens with a South Korean official they already had under surveillance, according to the affidavit.
“Under FARA, not registering is a criminal charge,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “Anybody who is involved in this sort of international exchange is very likely aware of it. If not, they still have to abide by it.”
FBI wiretaps caught Park discussing payments from the South Korean government in exchange for information about his dealings with North Korea
Over the next few years, FBI wiretaps caught Park discussing payments from the South Korean government in exchange for information about his dealings with North Korea. But when agents inquired, Park denied having any association with them whatsoever.
On March 20, 2007, FBI agents “showed Park photographs of certain South Korean officials working in Manhattan, and Park stated that he did not know two of the officials,” a U.S. government press release explained. “Park then drove directly from that FBI interview to a restaurant in New Jersey, where he met with one of the South Korean officials he claimed not to know.”
Park was arrested on July 18, 2007, just three months after his reported visit to Nampo. A search of Park’s apartment turned up envelopes containing thousands of dollars in cash, according to court documents.
“FARA was first developed by FDR in 1938, because he thought Nazi Germany was doing a public relations campaign in the United States to keep us out of World War II,” Holman explained. “But what [Park] did goes far beyond simply not registering with FARA; this is international espionage.”
Yet, Park was charged only with three counts of making false statements to federal investigators. Facing up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $250,000, Park pled guilty. He was subsequently sentenced to 18 months’ probation and ordered to pay a $300 fine.
Park finally registered under FARA in December 2011, in connection with the Mt. Kumgang tourism project, but was later found in violation for not regularly reporting his activities or income. In 2012, Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A. was dissolved by authorities for not paying New York State taxes.
The Treasury Department and FBI declined to comment on the case, as did the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handled it for the government. Park’s lawyer, Deirdre von Dornum of the Brooklyn Federal Defenders office, did not respond to multiple inquiries. Park’s probation officer, Adam Pakula, said he couldn’t discuss the matter, and claimed not to remember Park anyway.
Mt. Kumgang remains closed to tourists as of this writing, although North Korea is reportedly trying to rebrand the resort as a domestic destination for locals. As for the status of the soju business, Bai insisted he didn’t know anything.
“I don’t have any relationship with Mr. Park anymore,” he said. “Nowadays, I’m living a clean life.”