U.S. Fears Spread of Deadly Weapons by North Korea, Official Says

Macau's Casino Lisboa. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON—North Korea is engaged in numerous criminal activities, including drug trafficking and counterfeiting, but its role in spreading deadly weapons is Washington’s biggest worry, a senior U.S. official has told RFA’s Korean service.

Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Crimes Stuart Levey told RFA’s Korean service that a number of North Korean entities have already been designated as weapons proliferators.

Other organizations, including a bank in Macau, have been identified as willing partners in North Korean crime, Levey said.

Banco Delta Asia bank was acting willingly on behalf of the government of North Korea in a variety of illicit activities. Not just in terms of putting into circulation counterfeit U.S. currency, but also facilitating other money-laundering activities,

“Banco Delta Asia bank was acting willingly on behalf of the government of North Korea in a variety of illicit activities,” Levey said in an interview. “Not just in terms of putting into circulation counterfeit U.S. currency, but also facilitating other money-laundering activities.”

Levey said that his department is charged with ensuring that North Korea doesn’t use the world financial system, and especially the U.S. financial system, to support its criminal behavior.

Economy propped up by crime

“I have to say we are concerned about all [illicit activities], but the president issued an executive order in June of 2005 that is directed particularly to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

“And under the executive order, the Treasury Department was given the authority to designate those entities that are facilitating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. That is of a primary concern to the U.S. government.”

U.S. President George Bush’s executive order in June banned any dealings between the eight designated entities and any U.S. person. It also froze any assets the entities may have under U.S. jurisdiction.

The entities are: Hesong Trading Corp. and Tosong Technology Trading Corp, both owned by Korea Mining Development Corp. (KOMID); Korea Complex Equipment Import Corp., Korea International Chemical Joint Venture Co., Korea Kwangsong Trading Corp., Korea Pugang Trading Corp., Korea Ryongwang Trading Corp., and Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corp., all owned by Korea Ryonbong General Corp.

Pattern of illicit trade

David Asher, former senior adviser on East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, told RFA earlier this month that the improving lifestyle among Pyongyang’s political elite was at odds with the country’s massive trade deficit and high debt levels.

He said some 40 percent of North Korea’s economy derives from international crime.

“The street stalls in Pyongyang and other North Korean cities seem to be awash in foreign-made cloths, food, and TVs, and the quality of life of the elite seems to have improved,” Asher said in a recent speech.

“What’s apparently filling the gap and accounting for the apparent improvements to the standard of living for the elite? The short answer as I see it: Crime.”

Large methamphetamine hauls

The case of the Pong Su ship, meanwhile, seized by Australian authorities in April 2003 amid an abortive attempt to smuggle heroin into the country on a stormy night, has bathed the activities of the North Korean regime in rare publicity.

It also hinted at a much larger and well-established pattern on Pyongyang’s part, Asher told RFA in a recent interview.

A lawyer for one of the Pong Su crewmen has said the prosecution had wound up its case, and that the trial was likely to last until the end of the year.

The U.S. $150 million heroin seizure was neither random nor isolated, he said. “It clearly demonstrates the role of the North Korean government in the area of narco-trafficking,” Asher said. “It’s not a coincidence given the patterns we’ve seen in the past.”

“It was a vessel owned by the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP), and with a KWP secretary on board,” he said.

'Indirect channels'

North Korea denied any involvement with the Pong Su in 2003, calling it “part of Washington’s moves to increase the international pressure on the DPRK.”

An unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that Pyongyang “has consistently been opposed to the misuse and smuggling of drugs and has nothing to do with the recent case.”

Washington and Canberra “are now engrossed in the false propaganda” against Pyongyang, it said.

Pyongyang produces its own drugs and distributed them via Chinese criminal organizations on every continent, according to Asher’s speech.

Crime said to play pivotal role

“To mask their fingerprints the North Koreans are going through triads, snakeheads, and other indirect channels. This has been less true with heroin where North Koreans continue to be observed selling the drugs.”

Much of the methamphetamine currently available in China was of the very high purity that is a trademark of North Korean-made products, the speech said.

From 1998-2002, Japanese police seized nearly 1,500 kilos of methamphetamine that in six separate prosecuted cases was shown to have originated in the DPRK.

“This amounts to 35 percent of all methamphetamine seizures in Japan in that period and had a wholesale value of over U.S. $75 million and a street value of as much as U.S. $300 million,” Asher wrote.

Asher said North Korea was the only government in the world today that could be identified as being actively involved in directing crime as a central part of its national economic strategy and foreign policy.

Irish link alleged

“In essence, North Korea has become a ‘soprano state’—a government guided by a Worker’s Party leadership whose actions, attitudes, and affiliations increasingly resemble those of an organized crime family more than a normal nation,” he said.

Pyongyang has repeatedly denied involvement in international criminal activities.

In a related development, the president of the Irish Workers’ Party failed to appear at an extradition hearing Dec. 1 related to allegations that he and others bought and disseminated high-quality, North Korean counterfeit U.S. $100 notes.

A court official in Belfast told RFA’s Korean service that a new hearing was set for Jan. 18. Sean Garland, 71, denies the charges. Washington also charges that Garland “arranged with North Korean agencies for the purchase of quantities of notes and enlisted other people to disseminate” the money.

Original reporting by Sungwon Yang and D.H. Lee for RFA’s Korean service. Edited by Sooil Chun. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Edited in English by Richard Finney, Luisetta Mudie, and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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