NBC Weapons: What Glows in the Heart of Darkness

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICALWEAPONS

March 28, 2006: Since the late 1990s, there have been rumors of North Korea operating a uranium mining operation in the Congo. Attempts to find out exactly what it happening have been unsuccessful. The main problem is that there is no government in the southern Congo, or at least not much government. Those government officials that do exist, are mostly interested in bribes and kickbacks. Same with the few police and soldiers to be found. As a result, there are outlaw operations everywhere. Bribes and gunmen have allowed outlaw mining and smuggling operations to extract thousands of tons of valuable materials. Cobalt ore is currently going for over $50,000 a ton, if you can get it out of the country without paying any taxes. UN peacekeepers can't touch these operations, as they are an "internal matter."

What is known is that the North Koreans have been in the Congo for over thirty years, mainly to provide technical assistance, and military training for former dictator Mobutu. The North Korean troops were soon joined by technical experts and traders, who eventually replaced the troops. Many believed that all this was just another effort by North Korea to raise hard currency any way it could. The CIA was able to keep an eye on the North Koreans, at least until the Congo sank into chaos and civil war in the late 1990s.

Which brings us to the Shinkolobwe mines, that produce very high grade uranium. In fact, America's first nuclear weapons used uranium from Shinkolobwe. But these mines were closed in 1960 (having been open since 1915). Then, in 1999, North Korean mining engineers showed up in the Congo, and stories spread that uranium mining was resuming at Shinkolobwe. If the North Koreans were there to help pull more uranium out of Shinkolobwe, it wasn't so that North Korea could build atomic bombs. North Korea had its own uranium mines. But the outlaw mining in Congo was very lucrative, and the North Koreans favored these shady operations. The area around the former Shinkolobwe uranium mines were already being worked by thousands of freelance miners. Whatever they pulled out of the ground, was sold to illegal brokers (usually Lebanese), and then smuggled out of the country. Local warlords took a cut, and provided security (from other gangsters, as well as the media, and any kind of law enforcement.)

There isn't a large black market for uranium, especially the unrefined ore. Counter-terrorist agencies from many nations are always on the lookout for any uranium trafficking. But there are Middle Eastern customers for uranium. Iranian merchants and government officials have been seen in Congo for over a decade. And the Middle Eastern connections of many of the ore brokers in the Congo gives counter-terrorist experts the willies.

If anyone really knows what's going on with the outlaw mining operations in the Congo, they aren't talking. Probably to protect their sources, and maintain some flow of information from the original "Heart of Darkness."

 


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