North Korean Diplomats Smuggle Ivory, Cigarettes and Gold

North Koreans
North Korean diplomats react after being confronted about allegations linking their embassy in Pretoria to rhino horn smuggling. Photo: Julian Rademeyer

Published Sep 25, 2017 8:00 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new report by The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime lifts the lid on state-sanctioned North Korean criminal activity in Africa, exposing diplomats and embassies linked to illicit trade in rhino horn, ivory, cigarettes and gold. 

Increasing economic sanctions and isolationist policies designed to cripple North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities are likely to fuel the expansion of the regime’s illicit activities and state sponsored criminal networks, states the report written by South African researcher and journalist Julian Rademeyer.

Drawing on interviews with high-level North Korean defectors, diplomatic and government sources and hundreds pages of documents, press reports and academic articles, the report Diplomats and Deceit – North Korea’s Criminal Activities in Africa examines North Korea’s involvement in Africa and allegations that the country’s embassies in several African states are intimately connected to a complex web of illicit activity aimed at the bolstering the Kim Jong-un regime and enriching cash-strapped diplomats. 

Research conducted by the Global Initiative has linked North Korean diplomatic passport holders to at least 18 cases of rhino horn and ivory smuggling over the past 30 years. Gold, diamonds and luxury goods are also alluring prospects. In March 2015, a North Korean diplomat was caught smuggling gold worth an estimated $1.4 million out of Bangladesh. 

Cigarette-smuggling remains another lucrative outlet for North Korean diplomats seeking to fund the regime and bolster their low wages. North Korean diplomats were accused of smuggling millions of cigarettes into Scandinavian countries in the 1970s and selling them on to black market dealers. Such activities have continued over the decades. Bangladesh expelled a North Korean diplomat in August 2016 after he was caught smuggling more than a million cigarettes and electronic goods in a container he claimed contained food and soft drinks.

A 2008 report prepared by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimated that North Korean crime for-profit activities generated as much as $500-million in profit per year (about a third of DPRK’s annual exports, although it cautioned that dollar value estimates of clandestine activities are highly speculative. Other estimates suggest that North Korea earns between $700 million and $1 billion annually through exports of weapons and trading in drugs and counterfeit money.

Aside from entanglements in the drugs trade, North Korea has also frequently been accused – primarily by U.S. authorities – of involvement in counterfeiting US dollars. Dubbed “Supernotes” by investigators, the $100 bills are reputed to be of such high quality that they are difficult to detect.

The Case of Han Tae-song

In 1992, a young North Korean diplomat was expelled from Zimbabwe, accused of smuggling several rhino horns out of the country in a diplomatic bag. At the time, Han Tae-song – also referred to in contemporary press reports as Han Dae Song - was the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Harare. Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper reported that the government felt its “only course of action is to deport Mr Han as an undesirable character whose activities are incompatible with his status as an accredited diplomat.” Today, 25 years later, Han is one of North Korea’s most prominent diplomats, heading up the country’s permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva and serving as its ambassador to Switzerland.

Han Tae-song’s case highlights the impunity with which many North Korean diplomats appear to operate, states the report. Few of those implicated in criminal transgressions in Africa, Asia and Europe appear to have been prosecuted or sanctioned in any way. A U.S. State Department document, circulated to a number of governments in April 2017, urged “strict scrutiny of North Korean officials claiming to be diplomats” referring to “multiple instances of North Korea’s abuse of diplomatic privilege to facilitate prohibited activities.”

More Sanctions

After threatening to "totally destroy North Korea" in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly last Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting foreign companies doing business with North Korea. Additionally, on Sunday, Trump signed a proclamation that prohibits the entry of citizens from North Korea to the U.S. as part of a new travel ban that includes Iran, Chad, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and Somalia.

North Korea’s foreign minister said on Monday President Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea and that Pyongyang reserved the right to take countermeasures.

The report is available here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.