Diplomats and Deceit – North Korea’s Criminal Activities in Africa

A new report written for The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime by Julian Rademeyer, the author of Killing for Profit, 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 minerals.

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. 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.

While much has been written about North Korean criminal activity in Asia and Europe, far less attention has been given to the illicit activities of North Korean diplomats and smugglers in Africa.  Much of that activity has centred on trade in endangered species products but there also allegations of North Korean involvement in smuggling counterfeit cigarettes, duty-free goods and minerals.

Interviews conducted by the Global Initiative with law enforcement, diplomatic and government officials in Southern Africa and South Korea, along with “high-level” North Korean defectors now living in Seoul, suggest that a number of North Korea’s African embassies form a nexus of illicit trade in rhino horn, ivory, cigarettes and minerals.

Information about North Korean involvement in criminal activity in Africa is patchy at best. Few incidents make newspaper headlines and African governments with ties to Pyongyang have demonstrated a reluctance to embarrass the regime or take action against diplomats implicated in illicit activities.

An analysis of press reports and other publicly available information conducted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime last year found that North Koreans have been implicated in 18 of at least 31 detected rhino horn and ivory smuggling cases involving diplomats in Africa since 1986. One defector interviewed by the Global Initiative described diplomatic involvement in smuggling ivory and other illicit goods from Africa to Asia:

Ivory and gold came mostly from Congo. There was also ivory from Angola and a lot of rhino horn from South Africa and Mozambique. The military attaché [at the embassy in Ethiopia] would bring some ivory and gold rock. They also brought rhino horn. Sometimes also from Angola they were bringing the rhino horn…Every embassy was coming two or three times every year. Pak Chol-ju, a North Korean trade official based in Zimbabwe was ‘Number 1’ in smuggling in South Africa. Then there were the military attaches from Ethiopia and second secretary from the DPRK embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The diplomatic smugglers would carry the contraband in their hand luggage where the ivory took various forms: chopsticks, cigarette cases, sculptures, chopped ones. Maybe 7kg to 10kg each time. It didn’t make as much as rhino horn. I think the original cost was about $20,000 for 7kg to 10kg and they were making a profit of about $10,000 for a [suit]case”.

The most recent cases on record occurred in September and October 2016 when two North Korean nationals travelling on diplomatic passports were separately detained at Bole International Airport in Ethiopia en route to China.

In the first incident, a man identified as Jon Kwang-chol was stopped by airport officials on 24 September 2016 after 76 pieces of worked ivory were allegedly found in his possession.

On 13 October 2016 another North Korean national, Kim Chang-su, was stopped at Bole International in transit from Zimbabwe as he was about to board a flight to Shanghai. Two hundred ivory bangles were allegedly found in his possession. Kim is believed to be the North Korean trade representative in Harare, Zimbabwe. He was released without charge once he was identified as a diplomat.

The arrests come in the wake of an incident in May 2015 when Mozambican police detained two men in the country’s capital, Maputo. The men were travelling in a Toyota Fortuner 4×4, registered to the North Korean embassy in Pretoria, South Africa when they were stopped. Close to $100,000 in cash and 4.5kg of rhino horn was discovered during a search of the vehicle.

The suspects, later identified as Pak Chol-jun – the political counsellor at the Pretoria embassy – and Kim Jong-su – a Taekwon-Do master and suspected North Korean spy were released by Mozambican authorities after the North Korean ambassador to South Africa intervened. In November 2016, South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation gave Pak 30 days to leave the country or be declared persona non-grata. He flew to Pyongyang on 11 December 2016. Kim – the Taekwon-Do master – left South Africa in late October or early November, telling acquaintances he was returning home to “visit family”. He has not returned.

Click on the link to read the full report…

Read coverage of the report and listen to audio interviews Economist, Financial Times, National Geographic, the China-Africa Project and Voice of America



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