WASHINGTON—At least 50 North Korean diplomats have been arrested for drug-smuggling over the last two decades, apparently to fund the activities of Pyongyang’s overseas embassies.
"There have been over 50 documented incidents in the last 20 years where North Korean diplomats have been caught [smuggling drugs],” a senior U.S. official told RFA’s Korean service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
There have been over 50 documented incidents in the last 20 years where North Korean diplomats have been caught [smuggling drugs].
The official said the North Korean government appears to be using drug-smuggling proceeds to fund its embassies abroad. “This is related to the fact that the North Korean government does not see fit to fund its embassies,” the official said.
Korea expert Ralph Perl at the Congressional Research Service estimated that income from drug deals could have netted the isolated Stalinist regime as much as U.S.$500 million dollars in profit from drugs it produced on its own territory.
But he cautioned that the figures were hard to obtain. "First of all, this is a clandestine operation. We only know the incidents where we catch the drugs," Perl told RFA's Korean service. "That said, I think it’s safe to say that the drug trade brings at least a hundred million dollars a year to N. Korea, possibly as high as five hundred million dollars."
"North Korea exports and produces mainly two types of drugs. The first drug is heroin or opium and the second drug is methamphetamine," Perl said. "Heroin or opium mostly goes to Europe and the methamphetamine largely to Southeast Asia."
"There’s no question in my mind that they are producing them and they are producing them for non-pharmaceutical purposes. They are producing them to generate income," he told RFA in a recent interview.
While there is no evidence that North Korean-produced drugs have ever arrived in the United States, analysts say the recent arrest and deportation of two North Korean diplomats from the United States for smuggling the synthetic drug fenethylline may prompt a stronger reaction from the Bush administration.
North Korea has denied involvement in the drug trade.
Pyongyang last week said it was withdrawing from its embassy in Bulgaria two diplomats accused of smuggling drugs in neighboring Turkey.
State trading of narcotics is a conspiracy between officials at the highest levels of the ruling party/government and their subordinates to cultivate, manufacture, and/or traffic narcotics with impunity...
The two—identified as Ryang Thae Won and Kim Song Jin—were arrested earlier this month. Turkish police also seized 621,000 narcotic pills, which they said had been destined for Arab countries.
Earlier this year in its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the State Department charged that the North Korean government was involved in the global drugs trade as a matter of policy—using much harsher language than it has in previous reports.
“The ‘Pong Su’ seizure and numerous drug-smuggling incidents linked to North Korea over the past several decades reflect official involvement in the trafficking of illicit narcotics for profit, and make it highly likely, but not certain, that Pyongyang is trading narcotic drugs for profit as state policy,” the report said.
Heroin or opium mostly goes to Europe and the methamphetamine largely to Southeast Asia.
In April 2003, Australian authorities intercepted a North Korean-flagged ship called the Pong Su, after it apparently delivered 125 kilos of heroin to criminals at an isolated beach near Lorne, Australia.
“State trading of narcotics is a conspiracy between officials at the highest levels of the ruling party/government and their subordinates to cultivate, manufacture, and/or traffic narcotics with impunity through the use of, but not limited to, state-owned assets," the report said.
“Law enforcement cases over the years have not only clearly established that North Korean diplomats, military officers, and other party/government officials have been involved in the smuggling of narcotics, but also that state-owned assets, particularly ships, have been used to facilitate and support international drug-trafficking ventures.”
But Perl said it was also likely that what was once a state-sponsored narcotics industry had got increasingly out of hand, and that the government no longer had full control over the activities of the networks it set up.