Even if North Korea cracks down on its state-sponsored organized crime, the regime has backed so many criminal rackets that they may be spinning out of control, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service.
The regime has grown notorious in recent years for its far-flung criminal enterprises. The list of rackets reads like the Mafia in its heyday: massive production and trafficking of narcotics, counterfeiting of currencies and products ranging from cigarettes to Viagra, insurance fraud, and more. The criminal activity provides desperately needed hard cash to the impoverished regime and is thought to pull in anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion annually.
Investigators have documented at least 50 incidentsmany involving North Korean diplomatslinking the regime to drug trafficking. But since 2003, according to CRS, no cases have surfaced directly tying the government to the traffic. Some analysts credit this to a crackdown by Washington and its allies, which may have forced the regime to pare back its criminal activity. But not everyone is convinced; government-backed traffickers may simply be going through cutouts, working particularly through Chinese gangs across the border.
The report, by CRS national security expert Raphael Perl and economist Dick Nanto, is the latest in a series of groundbreaking studies by the group on North Korea's narcotics and counterfeiting rackets. This latest report notes that strongman Kim Jong Il still has plenty of reason to rely on criminal revenue. His government needs "slush funds designed to sustain the loyalty of a core of party elite numbering in the tens of thousands and to underwrite weapons development programs," write Perl and Nanto.
The prospects for a crackdown are not good. Even if Kim's government should decide to reform, it could be too latethe criminal activity may have grown so entrenched that it has taken on a life of its own.
"Increasing concern exists that North Korean crime-for-profit activity is becoming a 'runaway train,' gaining momentum, and possibly out of control," states the report. "As [North Korea's] crime-for-profit activity becomes increasingly entrenched, and arguably in some cases decentralized, analysts question whether the Pyongyang regime (or any subsequent government) would have the ability to effectively restrain such activity."
Usually organized crime grows from the bottom up, but Kim's desperate regime has managed to reverse all that. The result: A new generation of North Korean gangsters may soon be joining the big leagues of organized crime, along with the Sicilian Mafia, the Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads, the Russian mob, and Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.