The Wiseguy Regime
North Korea has embarked on a global crime spree
Authorities in numerous countries have stopped North Korean diplomats from smuggling vehicles, alcohol, fake antiques, electronic goods, weapons, and more. Other reports deeply implicate officials in the endangered-species trade. Since 1996, at least six North Korean diplomats have been forced to leave Africa after attempts to smuggle elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Such efforts seem partly driven by the dismal funding of North Korea's embassies. Lacking cash, North Korea closed at least 14 embassies last year and reportedly told those remaining to become "self-sufficient." Still other diplomatic smuggling incidents involve cigarettes, allegedly sold tax free on the black market, and pirated CDs. Two diplomats crossing into Romania from Bulgaria last year were found to have crammed 12,000 bootleg CDs in the trunk of their car. Truly inventive at times, North Koreans even counterfeit name-brand cigarettes, which contain their own cheap tobacco. In 1995, Taiwanese authorities seized 20 ship containers of counterfeit cigarette packaging bound for North Korea. It was enough to make 2 million fake cartons of bestselling Japanese and British brands.
North Korea's criminal reach extends beyond smuggling and counterfeiting, U.S. officials say. Japan has accused North Korea of kidnapping at least 19 of its citizens so that the regime's spies could learn Japanese and assume their victims' identities. The nation also appears on the State Department's short list of countries sponsoring terrorism. Its agents are suspected of the bombing of a 1987 South Korean flight and a 1983 bombing that killed South Korean officials in Burma.
Some policy makers argue that the best strategy is to isolate North Korea and wait for it to fall. But the regime has proved surprisingly resilient, and the key levers of power--the security forces and the Communist Party--remain under the firm control of the reclusive Kim Jong Il. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and other allies argue that lifting U.S. sanctions and further engaging the regime is the best way. Whatever the course ahead, at least the time has passed when North Korea's criminality could be ignored by policy makers. "It wasn't even on the radarscope," says one surprised U.S. analyst. "It's a classic case of hear no evil, see no evil, respond to no evil."
[Map is not available.] Global smugglers Since 1994 authorities in 20 countries have detained or arrested North Korean nationals, including many diplomats, for alleged drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and smuggling. Sources: U.S. and foreign law enforcement reports; press reports
State of peril in North Korea 21 million people 300,000 famine deaths per year 49-year life expectancy for men 62 percent of children under 7 malnourished $900 annual GDP per capita 25 percent of GDP spent on the military 1.1 million-member armed forces (fifth largest in the world) $200 million spent annually on nuclear program Sources: CIA, World Almanac, U.N. World Food Program
With Steven Butler and Mark E. Madden