North Korean Diplomats Accused of Smuggling Rhino Horn Out of Africa

By Roseanne Gerin
A South African protester holds a sign and a fake rhino horn during a demonstration calling on poachers to stop killing the endangered animals for their horns outside the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, in a file photo.

UPDATED at 11:15 a.m. EST on 2016-07-25

North Korean diplomats have been caught smuggling rhinoceros horns from southern Africa in several instances during the past three decades, according to a new report by a civil society organization that exposes transnational organized crime.

“North Korean embassy officials have been implicated in 16 of the 29 cases involving diplomats that we have identified in a variety of sources dating from 1986,” said the report issued in July by the Geneva, Switzerland-based Global Initiative Against Transitional Organized Crime.

“It is likely that many more cases of diplomatic involvement in the illicit trade have gone undetected and unreported,” it said.

The document entitled “Beyond Borders: Crime, Conservation and Criminal Networks in the Illicit Rhino Horn Trade,” is the second part of a two-part investigative report on rhino horn trafficking in southern Africa. It also says North Korean diplomatic missions have been involved in the illicit ivory trade in Africa.

North Korean missions in southern Africa have been involved in the trade in endangered species, especially in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to generate income for embassies that must be self-financing and to make financial contributions to the central government in Pyongyang, the report said.

The two southern African countries are plagued by weak economies and rife with political instability, land grabs and rampant corruption—all of which allow for rhino poaching, horn smuggling, and organized crime networks to thrive, the report said.

The rare and pricey horn of endangered white and black rhinos is sold to nationals of other countries, where ground rhino horn is used in traditional medicines.

“Driven by seemingly insatiable demand in Southeast Asia and China, rhino horn has become a black market commodity rivaling gold and platinum in value,” the report said.

Written by South African investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer, the report is based on documents and interviews with government officials and conservation and law enforcement authorities in southern Africa, Asia and Europe.

Diplomatic and government sources in South Africa told Global Initiative that North Korean embassy personnel in Pretoria are actively involved in smuggling ivory and rhino horn and may be linked to other illegal activities, the report said.

The diplomats rely on their immunity from arrest and detention and do much of the smuggling through diplomatic pouches, bags or shipping containers that are exempt from inspection by customs or police officers, the report said.

The bags are intended to transport diplomatic document or articles for official use.

Authorities can, however, examine such bags if they believe them to contain contraband goods.

The diplomat and the taekwondo master

The latest incident documented by the report occurred on May 3, 2015, when police in Mozambique’s capital Maputo found close to U.S. $100,000 in cash and 4.5 kilograms (9.9 pounds) of rhino horn inside a vehicle in which Pak Chol-jun, the political counselor at the North Korean embassy in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, and North Korean taekwondo master Kim Jong-su—a suspected spy—were traveling.

Their passports indicated they had made several trips to Mozambique and Namibia, where poaching of the protected species, smuggling and organized crime are rampant, the report said.

Police detained the two and impounded the vehicle. But they were released after paying U.S. $30,000 and authorities returned the vehicle to them.

Later that year, however, the South African government informed the embassy that Park had to leave the country within 30 days, which he did in December.

When a Global Initiative researcher and cameraman went to the North Korean embassy in Pretoria to ask about allegations of the embassy’s involvement in rhino horn trafficking, an official denied that Park had worked there. He also tried to attack the researcher and threw stones at his vehicle, the report said.

North Korean diplomats in other embassies in Africa have been implicated as well in rhino horn smuggling.

“There are also allegations that the North Korean embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is being used as a transit point for the smuggling of illicit wildlife products to China, with embassy officials abusing their diplomatic status to act as couriers,” the report said.

North Korea is not a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty which seeks to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animal and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild.

Hong Kong customs officials display ivory chopsticks, ivory bracelets and a rhinoceros horn found inside a container shipped to Hong Kong from Cape Town, South Africa, in a file photo.
Hong Kong customs officials display ivory chopsticks, ivory bracelets and a rhinoceros horn found inside a container shipped to Hong Kong from Cape Town, South Africa, in a file photo.
Credit: AFP
China and Vietnam

North Korea is not the only country covered by RFA to engage in illegal smuggling of rhino horn and elephant ivory.

The document cites several instances where Vietnamese and Chinese nationals have been caught trying to smuggle rhino horn and ivory out of Mozambique since October 2014.

Both countries have ratified CITES.

“While Vietnam remains a key destination and transit country, growing numbers of Chinese nationals have been arrested and prosecuted in recent years in Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States for smuggling rhino horn,” said the first part of the report entitled “Tipping Point: Transnational Organized Crime and the ‘War’ on Poaching.”

An average pair of rhino horns weighing about 5.9 kilograms (13 pounds) can sell for an estimated U.S. $30,000 -$65,000 a kilogram on the black market, the report said.

Both Chinese and Vietnamese social media platforms have a “thriving online market” for the products in the form of raw unworked rhino horn, carvings, libation cups, antiques and bangles, it said.

Sham rhino hunts have also been used as a means of obtaining rhino horn for Asian criminal networks, the report said.

The second part of the report cites a May 12 incident in which Mozambican authorities arrested a Chinese national after they stormed a house where he resided on the outskirts of the capital Maputo and found 1.3 tons of elephant tusks and rhino horns.

The next day, they arrested another Chinese man when he offered police a U.S. $34,000 bribe to drop the case.

A few days after the raid, about 12 horns disappeared and were replaced with bull horn replicas despite being guarded by police. Authorities released the Chinese suspects on bail after they promised to appear in court in November, but they disappeared without a trace, the report said.

Also in May, African authorities detained a Vietnamese national at the airport in Maputo before he could board a plane to Nairobi, Kenya, after they discovered 22.4 kilograms (49.4 pounds) of rhino horn in his bags, it said.

The month before, authorities arrested three Chinese citizens at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi after they found ivory bracelets, lions’ teeth, and individual pieces of ivory concealed in aluminum cooking foil and a condom, the report said.

“China and Vietnamese criminal networks have become ever more deeply entrenched in Mozambique, secure in the knowledge that being caught smuggling ivory, rhino horn or any other wildlife product can usually be resolved by paying a fine or a bribe,” the report said.

“Since the beginning of the current rhino poaching crisis, no Vietnamese or Chinese nationals arrested in connection with smuggling rhino horn or ivory have been jailed,” it said. “However, significant numbers of seizures have been made in Mozambique or tied to the country.”


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