SKorea pinpoints 20 illegal NKorean bank accounts

SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea has informed the U.S. of up to 20 North Korean bank accounts suspected of being used for counterfeiting, money laundering and other illegal transactions, a news report said Wednesday.

The move came as Washington considered punishing the North with its own financial sanctions apart from proposed U.N. sanctions. Separately, seven key nations neared agreement on a new U.N. resolution that would toughen sanctions against North Korea for defying the Security Council and conducting a second nuclear test on May 25.

South Korea gave the U.S. the information on some 10 to 20 North Korean bank accounts in China and Switzerland at Washington's request, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified government official.

South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry said they could not confirm the report.

The North has long been accused of being involved in the counterfeiting of $100 bills and money laundering — accusations it has denied.

But analysts say North Korea has an exclusive department, known as Room 39 or Bureau 39, to control various illicit business activities such as counterfeiting, drug-smuggling and weapons sales.

Room 39 has 120 foreign trade companies under its jurisdiction, Lim Soo-ho, a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, told The Associated Press.

He said that though the bureau formally falls under the ruling Workers' Party, in reality it is controlled directly by supreme leader Kim Jong Il.

He said North Korea earns foreign exchange from activities such as counterfeiting U.S. currency and drug trafficking. The U.S. government claims that North Korea also earns money through selling military technology such as missiles.

A 2007 report published by the Millennium Project of the World Federation of United Nations Associations said North Korea makes an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually from criminal enterprises.

In 2005, the U.S. imposed financial restrictions on Banco Delta Asia, a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau, over allegations of money laundering and other financial crimes involving North Korea. The move effectively cut the North off from the global financial system.

Faced with the growing international pressure, North Korea has been stepping up its rhetoric, issuing hard-line statements in its state media.

On Wednesday, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper described the nuclear protection provided by the U.S. to South Korea and Japan as an "undisguised declaration of nuclear war" against North Korea.

"It's self-evident that we cannot just sit by and wait to die when the U.S. publicly declared it will attack our republic with nuclear weapons," the newspaper said in a commentary carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.

The North's stepped-up rhetoric comes amid reports that Kim has reportedly chosen his third and youngest son — Kim Jong Un — as his successor.

On Wednesday, Japan's TV Asahi broadcast a photo of a man it said was Jong Un. It showed the upper body of a man wearing sunglasses and a white T-shirt. If genuine, it would be the first known picture of Jong Un as an adult.

TV Asahi quoted unidentified sources as saying that Jong Un frequently traveled to Europe until his father reportedly suffered a stroke last year. It said he never wears T-shirts in North Korea and is always seen in a worker's shirt in public, just like his father.

This version CORRECTS Corrects types of activities attributed to analyst in graf 9.

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