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How Prince Andrew’s tycoon friend hatched a plot to become Kim Jong Un’s private banker

A controversial property tycoon and former business partner of Prince Andrew who has donated £6 million to the Conservative Party secretly flew to North Korea in a bid to become a private banker for the family of brutal dictator Kim Jong Un.

Millionaire financier David Rowland held talks with North Korean leaders in the capital Pyongyang about managing the personal fortunes of the rogue state’s ruling family and helping the Communist regime set up companies abroad, according to documents seen by The Mail on Sunday.

It has long been believed the Kim family has stashed billions of pounds abroad in a network of secret accounts.

Experts say such accounts are used to fund their luxury lifestyle and as a way of dodging sanctions, although there is no evidence Rowland was ever aware of this.

Day at the races: Former business partners David Rowland and Prince Andrew at Royal Ascot in 2006

Rowland’s close links to Prince Andrew were revealed by the MoS last month. We exposed how the pair co-owned a company in a tax haven and how, in the years before the North Korean trip, the Duke of York had been using his position as Britain’s trade envoy to plug a private Luxembourg-based bank for the super-rich owned by Rowland and his family.

The MoS can also reveal that wealthy Hong Kong socialite Dr Johnny Hon, who paid Sarah Ferguson and Zara Tindall hundreds of thousands of pounds for introducing contacts and giving advice, was the key fixer behind the controversial discussions.

In an email seen by this newspaper, Hon promised that Rowland’s trip to North Korea would be kept under the radar.

Rowland and Hon’s involvement with one of the world’s most repressive states is likely to horrify both senior Tories and Buckingham Palace officials. Rowland, who owns a sprawling estate in Guernsey, donated thousands to the party as recently as last year.

The mysterious talks are detailed in a report posted online by David Rowland’s son Jonathan, who also took part in the visit, and in a series of documents attached to an email that he sent to an MoS journalist. They reveal how:

  • The Rowlands and Hon were treated as VIPs and driven to meetings on a highway that only the regime’s leaders are allowed to use;
  • North Korea’s National Symphony Orchestra held a concert in their honour;
  • The Rowlands discussed ‘banking facilities’ for the Kim family and the country’s ‘major state-owned enterprises’;
  • They also discussed investment into North Korea’s iron ore and gold mines. The UN later slapped sanctions on the export of these materials in a bid to stop the regime funding its nuclear missile programme;
  • The talks included the proposed listing of North Korea-related companies on Hong Kong’s stock exchange and presenting them as Chinese firms;
  • A proposal to open a casino in the state was also discussed;
  • Hon boasted that his relationship with North Korea’s leaders was so strong that they once ordered Pyongyang’s airport to remain open until 3am so he could fly home.

Hon, who has visited North Korea more than ten times, last night insisted that ‘no actual business resulted from the talks’ but a UN sanctions expert described the discussions as ‘extremely alarming and troubling’.

Hugh Griffiths, who between 2014 and last year was the coordinator of the panel of UN experts that monitors sanctions on North Korea, said: ‘If they had set up the mechanisms that were outlined, then they would have almost certainly been abused by North Korea for the purposes of sanctions violations, smuggling and the illicit cash transactions connected to that.’ A charismatic entrepreneur who built up the Global Group of companies, Hon, 48, was a guest at the wedding of Prince Andrew’s daughter, Eugenie, in 2018 and has struck lucrative deals with prominent Royals, paying for them to make connections for him and offer their advice.

Kim Jong-Un during a 2013 ceremony in Pyongyang to commend the officials, captains and fishermen in fisheries of the Korean People's Army (KPA) who distinguished themselves in making big fish hauls

Kim Jong-Un during a 2013 ceremony in Pyongyang to commend the officials, captains and fishermen in fisheries of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) who distinguished themselves in making big fish hauls

Last year, it emerged that Zara Tindall was paid £100,000 a year by a company owned by Hon.

The Duchess of York, meanwhile, was given an advance of £290,000 to kick-start her tea firm Ginger & Moss by a company once chaired by the businessman. She was also a £72,000-a-year non-executive director of Hon’s Hong Kong-based film investment company.

Hon’s links with North Korea date back to at least 2005 when he launched a bank – Koryo Global Credit Bank – from a Pyongyang hotel. He reportedly broke off business ties when the US imposed sanctions in 2008 in connection with North Korea’s nuclear programme.

But between 2007 and 2012, Hon also chaired a foundation which promoted the ‘philosophy’ of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s ruthless first leader who established an authoritarian regime and imprisoned hundreds of thousands in work camps.

Hon worked with Keith Bennett, a supporter of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), to introduce David and Jonathan Rowland to senior members of the regime. Mr Bennett, who was Hon’s deputy chairman in the UK, previously assisted MPs and peers on the all-party group on North Korea.

As well as having close links to Prince Andrew, David Rowland, 74, is one of the Conservatives’ biggest backers, having donated £6.1 million to the party since 2009. In 2010, he quit as Tory party treasurer amid controversy surrounding his status as a former tax exile.

The documents show that the Rowlands began exploring doing business with North Korea in May 2011. An email written by Hon detailed how David Rowland had outlined a plan to establish a financial arrangement called a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to help the regime’s ruling family manage its money.

The proposal was drawn up six months before Kim Jong Il, the regime’s second dictator, died and was succeeded by Kim Jong Un. ‘DJR [David Rowland] told me a structure where he can help them (I really do not want to put this on an email but he mentioned to me using a SPV that controls [sic] by him),’ Hon wrote.

According to the emails, the North Koreans were interested in the proposal – and on June 13, the Rowlands received an official invitation, via Mr Bennett, to visit the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’ the following month. They were due to meet senior leaders of the regime, including Ri Chol, also known as Ri Su-yong, North Korea’s foreign minister between 2014 and 2016.

The invitation followed years of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. In May 2009, North Korea shocked the world by claiming to have successfully tested a nuclear weapon as powerful as the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Just over seven months before the Rowlands flew to Pyongyang, North Korean artillery fired dozens of shells at a South Korean island, killing two soldiers.

Last year, it emerged that Zara Tindall was paid £100,000 a year by a company owned by Hon

Last year, it emerged that Zara Tindall was paid £100,000 a year by a company owned by Hon

Days before the trip, Jonathan Rowland appeared to have misgivings. ‘I just want to check that you think this trip to North Korea makes sense,’ he wrote to Hon. ‘You always suggested we met Ri Chol out of the country and I don’t want to make any mistakes at this stage.’

Hon, apparently worried about offending his volatile North Korean friends, made it clear that it was too late to back out, highlighting how Ri Chol had cancelled a trip abroad so he could meet them. He reassured the publicity-shy Rowlands that the totalitarian regime would ensure the trip remained secret.

‘The government there has ordered a media blocked out [sic] so no one will know that you guys are there. If we cancel the trip now, they will be pissed with me,’ Hon wrote.

After the group returned from the extraordinary visit, Hon wrote a report. It has been seen by the MoS and details how the two Rowlands, Hon and another Hong Kong businessman flew by private jet from Beijing on July 1, 2011, and were given a ‘VIP reception’ when they arrived at 10am. ‘A high level of protocol was maintained throughout the day, with a convoy including courtesy lead car and police escorts,’ Hon wrote.

‘A special road, normally used only by the top leadership of the country, was taken between the airport and the centre of Pyongyang.’

The group was whisked to a military-guarded guesthouse which is ‘reserved for senior guests of the country’. ‘The hosts informed us that this guesthouse would henceforth also be at the disposal of the Rowland family on future visits to the country,’ Hon added.

They were then taken to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the regime’s imposing ‘parliament’, for a series of talks, the most important of which was with Ri.

Hon reported how the ‘business talks’ with Ri ‘covered six main areas’, including ‘banking facilities for the General and the members of his family’, as well as ‘banking facilities for the country’s major state-owned enterprises’.

Experts say the provision of banking facilities to the regime’s leaders would be hugely controversial. Kim Jong Il reportedly had £3 billion in secret accounts in European banks when he died. After his death, Kim Jong Un is believed to have inherited the slush funds and the small group of trusted bankers who manage them.

Hamish Macdonald, an expert in North Korea at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said it was ‘exceptional’ for the Kim family to discuss private arrangements with outsiders and it showed that Hon was likely to be ‘highly trusted’ by the regime.

Dr Johnny Hon paid Sarah Ferguson and Zara Tindall hundreds of thousands of pounds for introducing contacts and giving advice

Dr Johnny Hon paid Sarah Ferguson and Zara Tindall hundreds of thousands of pounds for introducing contacts and giving advice

There is no suggestion the Rowlands discussed anything that would have breached the then UN sanctions regime or that they knew the North Koreans would use any banking facilities that they put in place for illegal activities.

Hon’s report reveals that the Rowlands went on to discuss ‘strategic investment’ in North Korea’s gold and iron ore mines, including the vast Musan iron ore mine in the north-east of the country.

Experts believe North Korea uses revenue from its mines to fund its nuclear weapons programme. Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016, the UN slapped swingeing sanctions on the regime, banning the export of iron ore and gold. However, there were no such sanctions when the Rowlands and Hon visited.

The talks, which continued with Ri over lunch at the guesthouse, included how the regime could be helped to list North Korean-related companies on the Hong Kong stock exchange. ‘These may be packaged and presented as the listing of Chinese companies with substantial assets in the DPRK (North Korea),’ Hon’s memo stated.

Mr Griffiths warned that North Korea used companies listed in Hong Kong to violate sanctions. There is no evidence the Rowlands and Hon intended to assist the regime in breaking sanctions.

‘Hong Kong is one of the main gateway points for North Koreans to move money internationally and then stash it in private bank accounts in Chinese banks, held by Chinese citizens but de-facto control resting with North Koreans,’ he said. ‘Even if these arrangements were in good faith on the part of the British businessman, it is certain they would have been abused.’

Later in the day, the British businessmen met another senior figure in the regime called Kim Yong Nam, who Hon described as ‘one of the most respected veteran leaders of the country’. During this meeting the Rowlands presented gifts for Kim Jong Il and his son.

The delegation later attended a concert and a banquet and visited a casino at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, the largest in North Korea, before returning to China.

Two days later, Hon forwarded the Rowlands two stories about the group’s visit from North Korea’s state-controlled news agency. As he had promised, the Rowlands’ involvement had gone below the radar.

There is no suggestion that Zara Tindall or Sarah Ferguson knew about Hon’s links with North Korea, nor is there any suggestion that Andrew knew about the Rowlands’ trip to Pyongyang.

Jonathan Rowland said last night: ‘We have never had any business dealings with anything to do with North Korea.’

Dr Hon said last night the visit ‘aimed to encourage and facilitate the opening of the country’s economy’, adding: ‘All this was intended to ensure that such resources could be used for the long-term benefit of the country and its people.’

Dr Hon added that the ‘political situation’ in North Korea was ‘quite different in 2011’ and that nothing ‘contemplated or discussed’ during the talks ‘was in breach of UK, EU or international law or regulations at the time’.


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