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The IRA’s Man in Pyongyang?


Revolutionary nationalists, especially the Irish variety, appear in the oddest places, with IRA patriots popping up in Libya, Columbia, Slovakia, and of course the USA. But who would have thought the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would attract one of its most notorious rebels?

It happened to Sean Garland, who as president of Ireland’s Workers’ Party, not only absorbed the dialectical wisdom of its semi-sacred leader comrade Kim Jong Il, but has apparently been a key figure in an alleged multi-million dollar, international North Korean forgery scheme aimed at ruining America’s economy. Now 71, Garland was arrested in October in Northern Ireland on behalf of the US but failed to appear at a December extradition hearing. His present whereabouts are unknown.

It’s been a terrible long time since Garland, then a young member of the Irish Republican Army, carried on his shoulders the mortally wounded body of the “lad from Limerick,” Sean South, his companion in a failed IRA border attack in Co. Fermanagh in 1957 that was celebrated in two famous ballads. Neither mentions Garland, but wounded himself in the raid and later jailed, he remains a nationalist hero.

Now, his case is being taken up in a protest of politicians’ otherwise unengaged by Irish nationalism, or for that matter, the six-party Asian talks that have dragged on for months over Pyongyang’s nuclear weaponry and Uncle Sam’s desire for it to be neutralized. Yet again, it is the perceived arrogance of President George Bush’s administration that inspires the protest.

Then, if you add to Sean Garland’s participation the Russian mafia, a former KGB agent, Asian banks, Chinese gangsters, the US ambassador in Seoul, a Nazi scheme called Operation Bernhard, and the American television show about the mob, The Sopranos, you begin to understand the scope of this story of money, deception, and politics. Yet it is little reported.

North Korea is supposed to have been forging US $100 bills for decades and they are of such fine quality they are known as Supernotes. The paper US paper composition is secret, but known to contain flax, but the inks are used widely. And of course a nation, which produces its own currency, has far better ability to create excellent fakes than a band of crooks in a basement.

Forging currency on a grand scale has the added attraction to revolutionaries of being a nasty weapon against capitalism. Make enough — the Koreans are reported to have counterfeited hundreds of millions worth — and you can produce inflation, which at root is an over-abundance of money. Clearly the US economic record shows that the Koreans, if indeed it is they, have some way to go with their bogus boodle, but hey, revolutionaries have always dreamed. Others conjure nightmares.

Seoul’s US ambassador, a die-hard rightist called Alexander Vershbow, took office in September and has boosted the rhetoric against Pyongyang’s peculiar Confucian-communist cult. He likens them to the Nazis, who in 1942 launched Operation Bernhard, named for its inventor, which forged millions of US dollar and sterling notes to cause its enemies inflation (in Britain, they may have done).

But the Nazis are hauled in too often and pontificators like Vershbow know no history. The US itself forged Confederate money during the Civil War of such quality it was regarded as superior to the bills it imitated. The British too distributed phoney money during the American Revolutionary War and caused such inflation that the Ben Franklin-designed “Continental currency” soon became worthless and was withdrawn.

Others, like David Asher, the US task force head on alleged DPRK forgery and drug dealings, employ different extravagances. In a November pronouncement he likened the DPRK to a “crime family” and the “Soprano state” and said, “Chinese gangsters, Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and a KGB agent” had all collaborated in distributing forged money.

The BBC ran a story in 2004 accusing Garland of being a ringleader, bringing in the money from Korea and Moscow’s Russian mafia, before smuggling it into Britain and Dublin for the criminal underworld. An Irish newspaper accused him of using forged cash to overcome Workers’ Party financial problems, but he replied that they had sold capital assets (as, surely, was the proper Marxist course).

In between there have been numerous incidents. North Korean diplomats and bank employees in Macau, the former Portuguese colony in China where Koreans do business, have been found with false currency. Ships at sea were stopped with hordes of it, and a DPRK freighter docking in Japan had hundreds of thousands the captain said the crew were to spend on cars. Last August a US sting operation ended in 59 arrested for smuggling in dud $100 notes.

At the nuclear talks in September, Pyongyang agreed in principle to disarmament in exchange for recognition and aid. Then the US imposed financial punishments including sanctions on eight of its trading companies. In November the six-party talks stalled, raising the question as to why the US was getting so tough now. After all, were a few million bogus dollars worse than the N-bomb? Suspicions arise that the new US pressure could be the start of a fresh initiative in Washington toward a “regime change” in Pyongyang.

It was then that the Americans busted Sean Garland. Although he lived openly in Dublin, where over the years he had survived an assassination attempt while head of the Official IRA (not the better known Provisionals) and numerous political skirmishes before becoming the Workers’ Party general secretary in 1986 and president in 2000. Yet his arrest on the US extradition warrant relating to the forgeries was not in Ireland but in British-run Belfast, where he was attending a WP convention.

A growing movement not to extradite Garland, supported by Irish politicians, pushes the argument that because of its weak case, the US deliberately avoided Ireland’s extradition law. It requires proof of probable wrong-doing whereas the much-criticised laxity of the British law is used as evidence of prime minister Tony Blair’s “poodle dog” status with President Bush. But the Americans miscalculated. A British judge let Garland free on bail — and he promptly jumped it.

Meanwhile, what to do about North Korea and its alleged dodgy dollars? More sanctions on a larger scale is an obvious option, but again hard evidence is lacking. The US would also be accused of fatally damaging the nuclear disarmament talks backed by four other nations, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, and in which Pyongyang’s main complaint now is the relatively modest current sanctions.

As Kim puts it in his customary modest way: “No force on earth can break the inexhaustible strength and indomitable will of this great army and great people.” Sean Garland might reflect on how the Irish struggle eventually prevailed against what was the world’s greatest power — Britain.

As for the raid that killed South, and also Fergal O’Hanlon who was only 17, the commemorative ballad written by Dominic Behan (brother of Brendan) was called — in a timely title for today’s Washington — The Patriot Game. It starts: “Come all you young rebels, and list while I sing / For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.”

CHRISTOPHER REED is a journalist who lives in Japan. His email


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