Enclave of spies

The cover story of this edition is only strange to those who have never lived, albeit indirectly, in the presence of Pyongyang’s shadow businesses in and throughout Macau. 

From the Publisher’s Desk | Macau Business September 2019


Severely affected by successive trade embargoes, the totalitarian regime in North Korea has for decades been using the most insidious schemes to conduct business that allows it to maintain the pariah state – officially still at war with its southern brothers – and the clan that has dominated it for three generations, far from the influences of the Western ‘demons’. Led by its arch-nemesis America. 

Anyone who has lived in Macau for more than a quarter of a century, as I have, can recall the stories involving North Korean interests in the city. Some espionage bestsellers are more worthy than others . . . but almost all create realistic backgrounds. And in the midst of it all – inevitably – appears Zokwang, a special trade delegation considered a de facto diplomatic representation of the Hermit Kingdom. 

Prior to the handover Macau was an ideal place for the presence and influence of North Koreans. Although Chinese territory, it was under the sway of the Portuguese Administration of a small European state whose world influence had long lapsed into the mists of history. With North Korea China’s strategic partner, there was one more reason for Pyongyang’s faux-funded façade to be here. 

Air Koryo flights during the 1990s, which allegedly carried UN-embargoed goods via Macau, were the talk of the town. On their way back home, the planes were said to take the best that was produced in the West to the delight of the North Korean leadership. It is from those very interesting days that the so-called Supernotes emerged. Extraordinary counterfeit dollars. The first was to be detected – you guessed it! – here in Macau. 

Nevertheless, an Italian spy who worked for the CIA swears in a book – titled ‘Supernotes’ – that what actually happened was even stranger than fiction. That the notes were in fact real, printed on a real machine but naturally unbeknownst to the American Congress and Senate. A CIA-aware machine in Pyonsong – the knowledge of which, according to Agent Kasper’s book, nearly killed the Carabinieri – that served the interests of the agency that needed funds to pay for its numerous nefarious operations around the world. The details of which, of course, will never see the public light of day. 

Truth or fiction? It hardly matters, because few will bother to connect the dots. 

Kim Jong Nam
Kim Jong Nam

Turn-of-the-century Macau under a foreign Administration, though, was perfect for North Korean interests. The city would also serve as the refuge of the current leader’s brother Kim Jong Nam, who enjoyed gambling in the city’s casinos and lived intermittently for years in Coloane. The older Kim would be murdered in Malaysia in February 2017, victim of an extremely toxic synthetic chemical compound identified as VX. 

The move to Zhuhai for the semi-ghost company Zokwang now makes more sense; and even more so because of the larger presence in Macau of members of the international community. Despite being across the ‘Portas do Cerco’ border, Zhuhai suffers far less media exposure. 

It may be that this story that Macau Business and Business Intelligence magazines now publish is just another shining a light on North Korea’s presence in times of near-global exclusion. But it will be interesting to follow the development of the arms sale website. Good reading. 


Welcome, Mr. Ho 

We already know what your announced plans are, as this edition reports. But since we are here, we should take advantage of your initial energy – such a contrast with that of your future predecessor – to shed light on the important task of government transfer. Today, more than ever, as the demonstrations in neighbouring Hong Kong so well express. 

It is true that Macau is very different to Hong Kong. In its course, in the formation and life history of its people, etc. But if there is one thing that any populace approves of – and sometimes defends vehemently – it is the integrity of its ruling class and the transparency of governing procedures. Nothing much, one would say. Both in democracy and in autocracy. The latter with understandably less turmoil . . . 

The incumbent government has done well to terminate the strange plan of having a company manage MOP60 billion of Macau’s reserves. It smelled bad from the very first moment. Just another warning, perhaps, that temptation is always greater than goodwill: cash saved by the rioters next door, some might say. 

Contracts still in force to deliver services of higher value to those allowed by law without recourse to public tenders should be reviewed. With the necessary accountability of everyone involved in these irregular giveaways. I don’t know about you but I’m quite tired of knowing something is terribly wrong just to be confronted with someone leaving their post to retire or departing for ‘family reasons’ until the day – finally – a corruption investigation is opened. By then, of course, those involved have flown the coop. 

But also the need to invest in more infrastructure and technology. If the MSAR needs highly qualified staff, import them: no-one will think the worse of you. Except, perhaps, for some who fear competition from better quality companies and services. 

Housing, health, environment. There is no mistake. There is money and the outlook remains very positive. What has long begun to crumble is the quality of life. Bring it back and your term will be successful.