The Wiseguy Regime
North Korea has embarked on a global crime spree
Defectors say that drug trafficking is, indeed, a state-run industry. One defector interviewed by U.S. News, Bae In Su, says he worked for three years as a driver for the Communist Party's Foreign Currency Earnings Department, ferrying opium and heroin to port for export. At least twice a month, Bae says, he would deliver a van full of opium--packed by the kilogram in plastic bags--to Japanese ships or to a local pharmaceutical plant that refined it into heroin. The entire process, he adds, was controlled by high-ranking party officials. "They talked about opium being gold," Bae says. Another defector, pharmacist Ho Chang Gol, has claimed that the government ran more than 10 poppy farms to export opium.
Given the tight control wielded by North Korea's security apparatus, U.S. analysts say that such large-scale production of illegal drugs could not exist without sponsorship by authorities in Pyongyang, the capital. Intelligence reports say that the trade is handled by Office 39, a party organ under the direct control of Kim Jong Il, which oversees production and then doles out the drugs to trading companies and diplomatic posts. U.S. officials believe the profits are funneled into a private slush fund controlled by Kim and used to hand out favors, bankroll intelligence operations, and buy military hardware.
The North Koreans have not targeted their drugs at the U.S. market, although at times their shipments have ended up here. One of Hong Kong's most notorious drug lords, Lai King-man, started out peddling heroin from North Korea, says Catherine Palmer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Lai in 1990. Palmer believes that 100 to 200 pounds were smuggled into the United States and that most of it ended up on the streets of New York.
Mexico to Moscow. Recent arrests suggest that the North Koreans are now exploring European markets. One year ago, Russian officials arrested two North Korean diplomats for smuggling 77 pounds of cocaine--enough to fetch $4 million on the street--from Mexico City to Moscow. In their pockets were round-trip tickets to Frankfurt. And last October, German police investigated the deputy ambassador at the embassy in Berlin for ties to a heroin-and-weapons-smuggling ring. But hardest hit are North Korea's neighbors. In the early 1990s, Russian officials noticed opium being sold by North Korean loggers in Siberia. The sellers, they found, dissolved opium and morphine into "medicines" with names like Roots of the White Bell and peddled them in local markets. But it took a 1994 sting operation to uncover the full scope of North Korean official involvement. Russian undercover cops agreed to buy nearly 18 pounds of heroin from two dealers who turned out to be North Korean state security agents. The deal was meant as a first installment for over 2 tons of the drug--and the Koreans boasted that nearly 8 tons were available.
Still, the drug of the future for North Korea is likely to be methamphetamine. The Koreans are moving quickly into industrial-scale production of "meth," the drug of choice in much of East Asia, say law enforcement officials. U.N. drug control officials are tracking 50 tons of ephedrine base allegedly ordered by North Korea in the past year. The drug is used as a cold remedy, but the nation's legitimate annual needs are 2.5 tons. "They must have a lot of stuffy noses," quips one drug control agent.