The Wiseguy Regime
North Korea has embarked on a global crime spree
Something about the two North Korean diplomats passing through Egypt didn't seem quite right. The pair, based in Syria, had arrived only a day earlier from Ethiopia and already were high-tailing it out of Cairo. Suspicious, an Egyptian customs official insisted on checking their six suitcases. He found quite a stash: 506,000 tablets of Rohypnol, a sedative known as the "date-rape drug."
That episode last July--the largest seizure of Rohypnol on record--is just one in a long string of drug incidents, counterfeiting cases, and other alleged crimes involving North Korean officials. Isolated, beset by famine, and desperate for hard currency, North Korea has in effect turned into a vast criminal enterprise, U.S. experts say. "It's the mafia masquerading as a government," contends James Przystup of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Says another international crime analyst: "If North Korea were not a nation, you could indict it as a continuing criminal enterprise."
Cases of North Korean officials engaged in smuggling and drug trafficking began to surface in the 1970s, but law enforcement analysts have noted a disturbing jump in the past five years. Using data from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Japanese and South Korean police, and foreign press reports, U.S. News has compiled a record of criminal complaints against North Korean diplomats in 16 countries since 1994. Interviews with law enforcement officials, intelligence analysts, and North Korean defectors suggest that the regime is now dramatically expanding its narcotics production and that much of the criminal activity is controlled at the highest levels of government.
How much of the profiteering goes to prop up the world's last Stalinist state--and how much lines the pockets of corrupt officials--is impossible to know. But it is clear that the worldwide network of North Korean embassies, coupled with the use of diplomatic pouches and immunity, offers the ideal cover for a criminal enterprise. "We've rarely seen a state use organized crime in this way," says Phil Williams, a University of Pittsburgh professor and editor of the journal Transnational Organized Crime. "This is a criminal state not because it's been captured by criminals but because the state has taken over crime." Among the evidence:
Authorities in at least nine countries have nabbed North Korean diplomats with a virtual pharmacy of illegal drugs: opium, heroin, cocaine, hashish. Investigators have traced orders for 50 tons of ephedrine--the base for methamphetamine--to North Korean front companies; that quantity is 20 times as much as the nation's legitimate needs.
North Korean officials have been caught distributing counterfeit $100 bills in Cambodia, Russia, Macao, and Mongolia. The regime is believed to produce some of the world's best bogus currency with the same model press used by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
North Korean officials in countries from Romania to Zambia are accused of using embassies and front companies to smuggle a mind-boggling array of goods, including untaxed cigarettes, bootleg CDs, fake antiques, and endangered species parts. North Koreans also have been tied to kidnappings and terrorism.
Behind much of this criminal activity lies North Korea's desperate need for cash. With the end of Soviet patronage, and with Koreans in Japan sending less money home, North Korea has lost two key sources of hard currency. Drug dealing and smuggling offer a lucrative alternative and are believed to bring into the nation's crippled economy more than $100 million each year. Just one North Korean methamphetamine shipment, seized in August by Japanese officials, had a street value of $170 million. By comparison, North Korea's legitimate exports plunged last year to a mere $520 million, while the nation spends an estimated $200 million annually on its nuclear program.