Buying Destruction

What is North Korea selling to organized crime groups? 

We shouldn’t be surprised that a new U.N. report concludes that North Korea is selling nuclear and ballistic missile technology to Iran, Syria and Burma. However, the report also confirms that Kim Jong-Il’s regime is using “links with overseas criminal networks to carry out these activities,” which could include the trafficking of WMD components. This fact means it is only a matter of time before a corrupt North Korean official sells off expertise, advanced weapons or even WMDs to a winning bidder.

Far too often the discussion about North Korea focuses on whether the regime will sell nuclear weapons, but a huge arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, conventional weapons, and personnel including special forces, scientists and hackers could also come onto the black market. A South Korean think tank recently concluded that North Korea has 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and the capability to produce much more. It is wishful thinking to believe that none of that large arsenal will be transferred out of the country, either as part of an official sale by the government or a deal with corrupt officials.

When Gordon Chang, an expert on Asia and author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, was asked by FrontPage how likely it is that these criminal networks will buy powerful weapons or expertise, he responded by asking, “How likely is it that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow?”

“Anything in North Korea is possible, and the links between ‘officials’ and ‘criminals’ are strong. Besides, many North Korean officials are criminals. I’m not so sure we should make a distinction between the two groups,” Chang told FrontPage when asked about the potential for a corrupt official to sell weapons on his own accord without official authorization.

A sharp warning of the nexus between corruption and WMD came in early 2004 from David Kay, the former director of the Iraq Survey Group that concluded that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime did not possess WMD stockpiles at the time of the invasion. He warned that the corruption his group saw meant that Iraq was a “far more dangerous country than even we anticipated with what may turn out to be not a fully accurate estimate."

“We know there were terrorist groups in state [Iraq] still seeking WMD capability. Iraq, although I found no weapons, had tremendous capabilities in this area. A marketplace phenomenon was about to occur, if it did not occur; sellers meeting buyers,” Kay said. Concern about a rogue government deciding to carry out an attack or sponsor terrorism is valid but the potential for a corrupt official to sell weapons or expertise under the table is also an incredibly pressing threat. And North Korea has many more weapons than Iraq did, many people willing to sell them, and a preexisting business relationship with organized crime groups already used to traffic illicit materials.

Criminal activity is very much a way of life for the North Korean government. The government actually has a specific section called Bureau 39 that oversees the drug trafficking, counterfeiting of currency, money laundering and other criminal ventures. Defectors say that government trucks and facilities are used to transport opium and turn it into heroin for export. Diplomats regularly smuggle contraband. In 2003, Australia intercepted a North Korean ship trying to deliver 150 kilograms of heroin. The Australians were so fed up with North Korea’s sponsorship of drug trafficking that they blew up the seized ship in 2006.

It is estimated that the leaders of the country earn about $1 billion annually from this black market activity to help fund their lavish lifestyles while their people live in poverty. In addition, about 40 percent of North Korea’s exports are said to be arms sales. The regime makes at least $2 billion from sales to Iran alone. This illegal trade has already reached the United States. In 2007, it was discovered that a Chinese crime group had smuggled drugs, money, illegal cigarettes, and $1 million in weapons including machine guns and rocket launchers into the country from North Korea.

North Korea is increasingly unstable. Proof of this comes in the delicate succession process Kim Jong-Il has undertaken to transfer power to his youngest son. His sister has been given the rank of a four-star general and his brother-in-law has also been given power. As one expert explained, “The entire bureaucracy is just a personal staff for Kim Jong-Il.” At the same time, the information blockade imposed by the regime is coming apart and about 100 military defectors officially begun a campaign on September 9 to topple the regime, marking the start of it with the mock execution of Kim Jong-Il. They claim to have a total of 200 members that will begin operations to encourage dissent in the military.

Many officials are comfortable with the black market trade and can be expected to turn to it without regret when they find themselves with dwindling income and an uncertain future. For a large amount of these officials, any concern that they should have about the destruction such sales will cause has been neutralized by decades of anti-Western indoctrination. All the ingredients exist for North Korean weapons and expertise to reach the black market. And they exist in high quantity.