Mozambique has become a major trading point for illegal rhino horn, much of which is being smuggled out by North Korean “dodgy diplomats”, a new report claims.
Released by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the report found that the corruption permeating every level of the Mozambican state – including the country’s ports, airports and borders – has made it a smuggler’s paradise.
One example cited in the report details the arrest, in Maputo in May 2015, of a North Korean diplomat and a taekwondo instructor after 4.5kg of illegal rhino horn and $100,000 was allegedly found in their vehicle. Police detained them and impounded the car.
Within hours of learning of the incident, the North Korean ambassador to South Africa, Yong Man-ho, was on a flight from Johannesburg to Maputo. The two men were later released after paying a $30,000 fine and the vehicle was returned to them. It’s unclear whether illegal contents were ever seized.
Diplomatic and government sources in South Africa have made similar claims, telling Global Initiative that the North Korean embassy in Pretoria is “actively involved in smuggling ivory and rhino horn” and may be linked to other illegal activities.
Attempts to reach the North Korean embassy in Pretoria for comment were rebuffed, with Julian Rademeyer, the author of the report, and a cameraman who approached the building, being manhandled by security.
With most of the planet’s rhinos in Kruger Park, which borders on Mozambique, the future of the species remains extremely tenuous unless South Africa and the world takes action to hold Maputo and individuals linked to the North Korean regime to account.
Conservationists in South Africa and Mozambique say they are encouraged by the work done by Mozambique’s National Agency for Conservation Areas, but are frustrated by the lack of progress from the Mozambican police in apprehending key poaching and trafficking ringleaders.
“Policing is abysmal,” said a Mozambican conservationist, who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s enough evidence to arrest and prosecute. We know who the key figures are. They are very well known. Despite that, we are not able to arrest any of the poaching gang leaders.”
There are also allegations that the North Korean embassy in 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.
Since the mid-1970s, North Korea’s involvement in transnational organised crime – particularly drug and cigarette trafficking, weapons smuggling and the production of counterfeit US currency – has grown steadily, peaking during the severe economic crisis and famine the country faced in the early and mid-1990s.
Global Initiative claims North Korean embassy officials have been implicated in 16 of the 29 illegal smuggling cases involving diplomats in Mozambique and South Africa since 1986.
A 2007 assessment of illicit activity and smuggling networks by the journal International Security concluded that “North Korea possesses sophisticated smuggling capabilities developed from years of transnational criminal activity, driven by economic necessity and justified with ideological veneer”.
These illicit activities are said to be controlled by a shadowy agency known as Division 39.
The US has described the division as “a secretive branch of the government… that provides critical support to [the] North Korean leadership, in part through engaging in illicit economic activities, managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership”. In this North Korea’s embassies appear to play a key role.
From the mid-1960 to the late 1990s Pyongyang offered military and financial resources to newly independent African countries, hoping they would recognise the North Korean leadership. Embassies were established across the continent, but quickly became a financial burden.
After the country defaulted on its international debts in 1975, its embassies were required to “self-fund” their operations, a practice that continues to this day.
“Diplomats are expected to earn enough money to supplement their paltry salaries and be able to make sizeable financial contributions to the central government in Pyongyang,” Global Initiative claims.
According to Rademeyer, the need to self-fund is part of the reason Korean diplomats have been implicated in crimes ranging from diamond, gold, drug and gun smuggling to trafficking in counterfeit currency, cigarettes, medicines and electronics.
With seeming immunity from prosecution, supporting organised crime seems to have become one of the primary preoccupations of North Korea’s beleaguered embassies.