THE face that stares from Kim Jong Su’s passport shows a rather woebegone man in suit and tie. In fact, Mr Kim is a taekwondo master and, allegedly, a North Korean spy. In 2015 he was detained in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, along with a counsellor in North Korea’s embassy in South Africa after their vehicle was stopped by police. Inside was almost $100,000 in cash and 4.5 kilos of rhino horn. They were released after the North Korean ambassador to South Africa intervened. In 2016, Mr Kim slipped out of South Africa.
This and other such stories are contained in a new report published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a Geneva-based lobby. The author, Julian Rademeyer, found that North Koreans were implicated in 18 of the 29 rhino-horn- and ivory-smuggling cases involving diplomats since 1986. How much of this shadowy commerce is for personal gain, and how much is to meet the North Korean regime’s thirst for hard currency, is impossible to say. The two motives overlap.
North Korean diplomats earn pitiful salaries: in the mid-1990s, embassy staff in Zambia went fishing in a nearby river to catch food for their national-day reception. Meanwhile, two departments in Pyongyang—Bureaus 38 and 39—exist to amass hard currency. Diplomats and other North Koreans abroad are expected to pay most of what they earn, licitly or illicitly, to the regime as “loyalty money”. Estimates of its annual income from illegal trade in a wide range of commodities, from arms to counterfeit $100 bills, range as high as $1bn.
The report quotes a defector who worked for Bureau 38 as saying that while he was posted to China, he often brokered meetings between local organised criminals and North Korean diplomats in Africa. They arrived bringing gold, ivory and rhino horn for sale. A trade official in Zimbabwe was making so much that “in 2013 and 2014, he paid loyalty money of $200,000,” said the defector.
After decolonisation, many African leaders saw Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding despot and the grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong Un (aka “Rocket Man”), as a natural ally. Even today, groups devoted to the study of his Juche ideology exist in at least seven African countries. North Korea has embassies in ten sub-Saharan countries. Keen to win votes at the UN, and perhaps to buy uranium for its nuclear programme, the regime has funded the construction of power stations and the training of special forces in Africa, provided interest-free loans to governments and sold them arms.
Mr Rademeyer, an expert on the trading of ivory and rhino horn, acknowledges that diplomatic immunity can stymie the police. But, he says, “few African countries with long-standing ties to Pyongyang have demonstrated a willingness to act pre-emptively and decisively. Some routinely turn a blind eye to the activities of the diplomats and embassies on their soil.” His report warns that things could get worse as America cajoles China into tighter economic sanctions on North Korea. As legal revenue sources dry up, the Kim regime will rely ever more on dark money, he says.