North Korea's Shadowy Role in the Illegal Wildlife Trade
Place Braconnier, in the heart of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, inherits its name from the general who commanded the first colonial Belgian outpost there back in 1882. But any association with him has mostly been forgotten.
As it happens, braconnier is French for “poacher,” and for decades Place Braconnier—Poacher Square—has been synonymous with the ivory, leopard skins, lion teeth, kudu horns, turtle shells, and other illicit wildlife products sold there.
It was among the stalls lining Poacher Square that Daniel Stiles, an independent conservationist carrying out an ivory field survey in 1999, first spotted Koreans. They were buying up tusks and carvings, which, he assumed, they intended to smuggle back to South Korea for sale. But when he visited South Korea, he was puzzled to find that the nation’s ivory market was almost non-existent.
Only years later did Stiles realize his error: The buyers were almost certainly North Koreans, not South Koreans.
According to historians, political scientists, and various governments, North Korean diplomats are notorious for their involvement in illegal trading. Until now the spotlight has focused mainly on their smuggling activities in Europe and Asia, but a new report reveals that Africa and its wildlife also feature prominently in North Korea’s illicit portfolio.
Poachers killed this black rhinocerous for its horn with high-caliber bullets at a water hole in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. They entered the park illegally, likely from a nearby village, and are thought to have used a silenced hunting rifle. Black rhinos number only about 5,000 today.
According to the findings, published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime—a Geneva-based network composed of law enforcement, government, and development experts—the past 30 years have seen at least 18 instances involving North Korean diplomats caught trafficking rhino horn and ivory. The number of cases that slip by undetected is almost certainly many times more.
An Ongoing Pattern
Red flags were first raised for Julian Rademeyer, the report’s author, when a bizarre news story caught his eye. In May 2015 Pak Chol-Jun, a political counselor from North Korea’s Pretoria embassy, and Kim Jong-Su, a Pretoria-based taekwondo master, were nabbed in Mozambique with close to $100,000 in cash and nearly 10 pounds of rhino horn.
The North Korean ambassador to South Africa negotiated the men’s release, but South Africa eventually expelled the political counselor. Meanwhile, the taekwondo master, who was also suspected of being a North Korean spy, according to Rademeyer’s confidential sources, told his martial arts students that he was going home to “visit family,” but he never returned.
“Just trying to get confirmation that the incident even happened was a nightmare,” Rademeyer says. “But it piqued my interest about North Korean diplomatic involvement in rhino horn and ivory trade.”
While incidents like the one in Mozambique sometimes emerge as isolated cases in the news, Rademeyer discovered an ongoing pattern of illicit activity. High-level defectors he reached for interviews described embassy officials and military attachés smuggling ivory from Angola, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as trafficking rhino horn from South Africa and Mozambique.
Diplomats are often falsely believed to have blanket immunity from search or arrest, and further research revealed that North Koreans take advantage of this to smuggle illegal wildlife goods in hand luggage on flights to China, where they have ties to organized criminal networks.
One defector, a former import-export middleman who worked on a diplomatic passport and now lives in Seoul, told Rademeyer that his job included regularly facilitating transactions between Africa-based diplomats and Chinese criminals. North Korean diplomats “would fly to Beijing and meet directly with Chinese smugglers, or I would arrange it and would exchange it into hard currency,” he told Rademeyer, referring to the trafficking of rhino horn, ivory, and gold nuggets.
He added that diplomats may make three or four such trafficking trips a year.
Some incidents Rademeyer lists date back to 1986, but others are more recent. The autumn of 2016 saw two back-to-back cases of North Korean nationals being stopped at Bole International Airport, in Ethiopia. The first was allegedly found with 76 pieces of carved ivory in his bag, the second with 200 ivory bangles. Both men were en route to China. But when one of the men flashed his diplomatic passport, he was released without charges. (The other man likely was let through also.)
“Very few officers want to risk the wrath of their supervisors by detaining diplomats,” Rademeyer says. “That points to a fairly major law enforcement problem.”
Africa is hardly the only place where North Korean diplomats engage in illicit activities.
This habit likely formed in the mid-1970s, when North Korea defaulted on its debt and lost its ability to borrow money, according to Sheena Chestnut Greitens, co-director of the University of Missouri’s Institute for Korean Studies. The nation was desperate for cash, and impoverished diplomats—North Korea’s ambassadors may earn just $1,000 a month today—became burdened with the responsibility of finding their own means of survival.
Defectors who formerly worked in North Korean embassies recall subsisting on white rice for weeks while engaging in money-making schemes on the side. As one told Rademeyer, “When we get the opportunity to go abroad, we will do anything to earn as much money as possible.”
A significant but indeterminate portion of their earnings must also be sent back to Pyongyang as “loyalty money” or “revolution tax.” According to Stephan Blancke, a political scientist and freelance researcher for King’s College London, the government couldn’t care less whether some or all of these funds come from shady dealings. “It’s absolutely OK for the government if their diplomats are engaged in illegal business, so long as they pay the revolution tax and perhaps give presents for birthdays and other special days,” he says, referring to national holidays such as the birthday of Kim Il-Sung.
In 1976 Scandinavian countries expelled 12 North Korean diplomats from their respective countries after investigators discovered they were smuggling and selling massive quantities of Polish vodka, cigarettes, and hashish. Yet that dramatic gesture did little to stem such practices. Greitens has verified nearly 150 cases of illicit activity involving North Koreans, many of whom were diplomats and some of whom were rewarded with promotions when they returned home.
With North Korea-based factories now producing high-quality methamphetamines for wholesale distribution to China and other countries, the country’s diplomats are less involved in drug trafficking than they once were, Greitens says. But there’s ample evidence, she says, that they remain entrenched in the smuggling and sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, U.S. dollars and cigarettes, and illegally obtained gold, gems, arms, and wildlife products.
“Smuggling is part of how North Korea earns the hard currency it needs to keep going and to allow the regime to stay in power,” Greitens says. “The entire regime operates on a cash basis.”
Reached for comment by email, a spokesperson from the embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pretoria denied that North Korean diplomats engage in trafficking of illegal rhino horn, ivory, or other contraband. “We strongly believe this report is full of fabricated stories without evidence that criticize [our] independent and sovereign state,” the unnamed spokesperson wrote.
For Diplomats: Low Risk, High Returns
As economic sanctions tighten on North Korea, diplomats will likely increase their illicit activities abroad, Blancke predicts. That includes more trafficking in rhino horn and ivory, which diplomatic criminals seek out because they offer high returns with low risk. The Seoul-based defector told Rademeyer that from 2011 to 2014 diplomats made about $10,000 in profit on each 15- to 22-pound suitcase of ivory and about $35,000 for just over two pounds of white rhino horn (black rhino horn sold for twice that amount).
Diplomatic bags are rarely searched, and even if intercepted, prosecution rates are notoriously low for ordinary citizens caught engaging in wildlife crime—let alone diplomats.
Expelling North Korean diplomats may be the best solution for curtailing illegal behavior. Five countries have already done so this year, although those moves were primarily motivated by North Korea’s involvement in nuclear testing.
But certain African countries may not be willing to send diplomats packing. As Rademeyer describes in his report, North Korea provided countries like Uganda, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea with resources, military advisors, and training during their struggles for independence. Those historic ties carry over to today.
“North Korea has some good friends in Africa,” says Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in Vermont. “In those places diplomats enjoy relatively little scrutiny and oversight in commercial activities, whether licit or illicit.”
But other African countries have had enough. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe—whose own ruthless regime North Korea helped establish by providing military assistance—nevertheless shuttered his country's North Korean embassy in 1998, allegedly because of embarrassingly frequent instances of diplomats being caught smuggling rhino horn and ivory. Botswana likewise severed its ties with the nation in 2014, owing to “human rights violations,” Rademeyer reports.
According to Botswana’s foreign ministry, this included “inhuman treatment” of North Koreans and “total disregard for the human rights of its citizens.” Mogweetsi Masisi, Botswana’s vice president, went so far as to describe North Korea to the UN General Assembly in New York as an “evil nation.”
“There’s this kind of growing diplomatic consensus around the world that North Korea has been getting away with renegade activities abroad for way too long, and it’s really not worth it to have a North Korean embassy in your home country,” says Ben Young, a doctoral candidate in Korean history at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think they do a whole lot of diplomacy.”
Even if the 10 remaining North Korean embassies in sub-Saharan Africa close, that wouldn’t solve the overarching problem of illegal wildlife trade. While the number of North Koreans caught smuggling wildlife products likely represents a gross underestimation of the true extent of their involvement, North Koreans alone likely don’t account for more than a few of the thousand-plus rhinos killed in Africa each year.
Nor are North Koreans the only diplomats involved in wildlife trafficking. In his research Rademeyer also uncovered 13 additional cases of Africa-based diplomats—mostly Chinese and Vietnamese—smuggling rhino horn and ivory.
“Based on the little we do know about North Korea’s involvement in the illegal wildlife trade, it seems likely that they play a smaller role than other far more active and entrenched transnational criminal networks with roots in Vietnam, China, Laos, Thailand, and other Asian countries,” Rademeyer says. “But they all contribute to the slaughter of more than 7,100 rhinos by poachers in Africa over the past decade.”
For Africa’s assailed wild animals, it all comes down to stemming demand, says Richard Thomas, global communications director for TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the global wildlife trade. “If use of rhino horn essentially goes out of fashion in Asia, the incentive to smuggle it there disappears simply because it would no longer be a high value commodity.”