The Wiseguy Regime
North Korea has embarked on a global crime spree
Some analysts suspect that drug profits may, in fact, be going into that program. Since 1994, Washington has pursued a policy of engagement, offering billions of dollars in Western aid if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons development and missile exports. But the policy has produced a frustrating stalemate, and U.S. intelligence officials say new satellite photos indicate the North Koreans are rapidly expanding a suspected underground nuclear site. Meanwhile, the North Korean Army--the world's fifth largest--remains a potent threat to South Korea and Japan. "I can hardly overstate my concern about North Korea," CIA Director George Tenet told Congress last week.
Congressional report. Concern over North Korea's illicit activity is bound to be fueled by a Congressional Research Service report due this week. The study, U.S. News has learned, cites at least 30 incidents that tie North Korea to drug trafficking. The CRS report suggests not only that drug profits could be funding the nuclear program but that U.S. food aid to the regime--over $77 million worth this year--may be needed in part because farm acreage is used to grow poppies for opium.
North Korea made its entry into the narcotics trade in the 1970s by purchasing drugs for resale, according to a U.S. intelligence report. At the time, the country had defaulted on international loans and, as now, was in dire need of cash. In 1976, four Scandinavian countries kicked out 17 North Korean diplomats after claiming to have found evidence that they were illegally selling narcotics, cigarettes, and alcohol. Among the officials were two ambassadors and the entire staff of the North Korean Embassy in Norway. (Diplomats, when caught, are rarely prosecuted.)
By the mid-1980s, North Korean farmers began cultivating opium poppies, allegedly under orders from leader Kim Il Sung. The processed opium and heroin were then sold overseas. With the cutoff of Soviet aid in the 1990s, Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, ordered a major expansion of the drugs-for-export program, U.S. officials say. Based on data from defectors and other intelligence sources, U.S. and South Korean narcotics analysts believe that up to 17,000 acres now produce at least 44 tons of opium annually. If true, that would approach the output of Colombia, the largest supplier of heroin to the United States.
Despite repeated requests, North Korean officials declined an interview with U.S. News. In the past, however, North Korean spokesmen have branded accusations of drug dealing and other crimes as "smear campaigns" orchestrated by South Korea. The nation's opium production, they say, is strictly for medicinal purposes and is being stockpiled for use in war. Moreover, some drug control officials remain skeptical that North Korea is a major drug producer, among them Herbert Schaepe, secretary of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna. "If those production figures are correct, we would see seizures everywhere," he says. "But we just haven't seen the evidence." U.S. law enforcement officials counter that they are seeing large seizures and that the growing number of smuggling incidents--as well as mounting testimony by defectors--cannot be explained away as propaganda from Seoul. More conclusive evidence could come from U.S. spy satellites; one satellite was recently tasked to photograph North Korea's opium fields, intelligence sources say, but the day was cloudy and officials have been unable to get the satellite retasked.