North Korea’s diplomats in Africa have been trading endangered animals for the past 30 years, a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime has revealed. Embassy staff based in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa have been repeatedly abusing the immunity of the ‘diplomatic bag’, as set out in the 1961 Vienna Convention, to smuggle rhino horn and other illegal wildlife items from Africa to Asian nations such as China, as well as the Middle East.
It has been known for some time that staff from the embassies of Vietnam and China have used their diplomatic immunity to act as couriers for rhino horn and ivory, but after the 2015 arrests in Mozambique of Pak Chol-jun, a North Korean diplomat based in South Africa, and Kim Jong-sun, a reputed North Korean spy, as well as a subsequent investigation by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the role of North Korean embassies in the international smuggling network has become more evident. Pak and Kim were arrested in a car with diplomatic license plates; with them in the car was $100,000 in cash, and 4.5kg of rhino horn. Their passports indicated that they had made multiple trips to Namibia and Mozambique.
The Global Initiative report states that is was not an isolated incident: ‘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. It is likely that many more cases of diplomatic involvement in the illicit trade have gone undetected and unreported.’ Indeed, according to John Hanks, former head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Africa programme, North Korean efforts to buy rhino horn from almost any source was an “open secret” during the 1980s, whether that source was government or military officials. The flagrant criminality of the North Korean embassy staff was admitted to by a diplomatic defector, Hyun Sung-il, the third secretary to the North Korean embassy in Lukasa, Zambia, who in 1997 confessed that he had “engaged in trafficking of ivory, gemstones and rhino horns, which were sold to China and some Middle Eastern and Asian countries.”
Hyun was not alone in his smuggling activities. Throughout the 1990s, as North Korea struggled through the crushing Great Famine, embassy staff seemed to be stepping up their efforts: Pak Su-yong, a diplomat in Zimbabwe, was arrested with a quantity of rhino horn and deported from Zimbabwe. Unperturbed, he was transferred to Zambia, where he continued to smuggle rhino horn; he was finally deported from Zimbabwe again in 1992. Han Dae-song, also a Zimbabwe-based diplomat, was accused of purchasing a number of rhino horns from a dealer and using his ‘diplomatic bag’ to smuggle them out of the country. He was relocated by his embassy in November 1991 before he could be officially deported. In November 1997, another third secretary to the North Korean embassy in Lukasa, Rim Ho, was detained at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, with six pieces of ivory found in his luggage. Instead of facing charges in court, he was recalled to North Korea.
The pattern continued throughout the 2000s: arrests of diplomats and embassy staff, family members and citizens with diplomatic connections, all carrying rhino horn, ivory and other illicit goods, or thousands of dollars in cash, all pointing to North Korea possessing ‘sophisticated smuggling capabilities developed from years of transnational criminal activity.’ According to the US government, these activities are controlled by an agency known variously as ‘Office 39’, ‘Bureau 39’ or ‘Division 39’, which provides support to the North Korean government by generating revenues for through various illegal activities – including trafficking animal parts. North Korean embassies appear to play a key role in this network, which extends even to the embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, and – allegedly – the Addis Abada embassy in Ethiopia is being used as a point for smuggling illegal wildlife products to China.
It is clear from the Global Initiative report that the embassies of North Korea form a key part of a transnational network of smugglers, who abuse their positions and privilege to ship illegal wildlife items, and contribute to the ongoing poaching and trafficking crises. The arrests made have proved to be only cosmetic, with TRAFFIC finding that, as of 2009, of the 41 people arrested, only 6 were convicted. For many African countries, the emphasis is on arrests and seizures, rather than targeted investigations and convictions, the long-term efficacy of which is questionable. Diplomatic staff and even the poachers themselves often walk free, and then move to a neighbouring country where they are able to continue their illegal activities. For those external agencies such Interpol, Europol, CITES and the World Customs Organisation that can provide support to African governments, or can directly target transnational criminals, the quality of the support they are able to provide is heavily dependent on the government officials designated to work with them. Jurisdictions affected by corruption, incompetence or governments unwilling to share intelligence will be an aid to criminal networks, and prove to be disruptive to the agencies working towards protecting their wildlife and fighting traffickers.
Known as the ‘hermit state’ or as a rogue nation, in the light of these revelations North Korea is not as hermetic as one might realise, and yet more rogue than one might imagine. The North Korean government has for years engaged in arms dealing, drug production and human trafficking – mainstays of transnational criminal organisations – and it should be no surprise that they are also engaged in wildlife trafficking, which has a global market value of up to $20bn. Crippled by sanctions and their economy moribund, the North Korean government looks for infusions of dollars from any source they can; the funds raised from the trafficking of wildlife contributes to supporting a paranoid state which commits human rights abuses on a massive scale, employs slave labour in gulags, tortures their citizens, and stands idly by as their population starves.
Beyond Borders: Crime, Conservation and Criminal Networks in the Illicit Rhino Horn Trade The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime