North Korea’s business model for earning hard currency is undergoing a shift from its traditional reliance on drug manufacturing and counterfeit operations, casting its net wider and in some cases, weirder. Lately, the government sponsored black market has its hands in everything from meth manufacturing to trafficking in endangered species, fake pharmaceuticals and counterfeit cigarettes.
The details of the North Korean government’s methods of generating income for its nuclear and missile programmes were illustrated in a study released on Tuesday, by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The report states that since the mid-1970s, the Kim Regime has been manufacturing narcotics and printing high-quality forgeries of foreign currency, and smuggling the illicit cargo abroad through diplomatic avenues, all part of the North Korean government’s “fundamental strategic objective” of self-preservation.
Recently however, it seems as if North Korea has expanded the scope of their criminal enterprises. In 2012, a North Korean citizen was arrested in Mozambique as he attempted to leave the country with 36 pieces of black market ivory, valued at approximately $36,000.
In the past two years, similar seizures in Kenya, Russia, and France have yielded more than 1.8 tons of ivory from North Korean smugglers. As the increased demand for black market powdered rhino horn keeps driving the price higher (in some cases an ounce of the stuff will sell for up to $3,000), ivory smuggling is easily as lucrative as drug smuggling, and in most places does not carry the same stiff penalties.
North Korea has also upped its game in the manufacture of counterfeit prescription drugs and cigarettes, as of late. Recently, a container of fake Marlboros was seized by Singapore customs officials after arriving from North Korea via the South Korean port of Busan. Similar counterfeit smokes have been impounded in South Africa, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
In 2006, 3 million cartons of counterfeit cigarettes – with a street value of over $5 million -were found by Greek customs agents aboard North Korean-flagged vessels.
In 2004, North Korean diplomats were caught attempting to smuggle 150,000 tablets of the sedative Clonazepam through Egypt, while embassy employees from Bulgaria were detained in Turkey carrying half a million tablets of the synthetic stimulant Captagon, worth approximately $7 million on the black market.
North Korea has also been accused of manufacturing counterfeit Viagra pills.
Tuesday’s report in Washington claims that North Korean officials have also engaged in smuggling gems over international borders, and trafficking in everything from counterfeit DVDs, to stolen cars, and pornography.