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On Point

North Korea's Criminal Sovereignty


by Austin Bay
November 1, 2017

The economic and political sanctions regimen the Trump Administration has placed on North Korea and its corporate enablers may help undermine one of the dictatorship's most important industries: its global organized crime operation.

Military and diplomatic analysts agree that criminal organizations influence several ongoing wars. But crime syndicate participation is rarely a decisive factor.

However, trans-national narcotics trafficking organizations like Mexico's notorious drug cartels have the financial resources to bribe key government and law enforcement officials. They can also hire gunmen with military-level combat skills and arm these gunmen with better weapons than the federal police.

The drug lords then employ their gunmen against competing gangs in turf wars for smuggling routes and against Mexican security forces. Their gunmen kill citizens in order to intimidate the populace. By scaring the locals into silence the gangs obtain "freedom of action" to protect turf, move drugs into the U.S. and Canada, and extort money from legitimate businesses.

Military-grade firepower and the targeting of citizens and security forces is why Mexico's drug war is sometimes called a "criminal insurgency." So far, the drug cartels don't want to become the government, the goal of a classic rebellion. Drug lords want to co-opt and weaken government with cash and violence. Criminal profit is their goal.

Then there's North Korea. The Kim regime, now run by dictator Kim Jong Un, is truly a criminal state where crime is a major source of hard currency. The criminals are the government.

This is not a secret. For at least four decades, numerous nations and international organizations have bewailed North Korean criminal operations, to include money laundering, counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

In 2010, the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute aptly described North Korea's peculiar situation as "criminal sovereignty" unique in the world's "national security arena." The Kim regime "uses state sovereignty to protect itself from external interference in its domestic affairs while dedicating a portion of its government to carrying out illicit international activities in defiance of international law and the domestic laws of numerous other nations."

The regime uses an office called Central Committee Bureau 39 to coordinate most of the criminal operations. It also maintains contacts with other organized criminal groups. This is one reason investigators believe North Korean has supplied other criminal groups with intelligence information as well as transport services.

North Korea deals and ships heroin throughout Asia. It supplies drug-abusing factory workers in neighboring China with methamphetamines. Bureau 39 operates cigarette and exotic animal smuggling schemes and smuggles weapons worldwide. In February 2017, media reported that North Korea had shipped encrypted communications systems and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles to unnamed countries in Asia and Africa.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry doubles as a Bureau 39 smuggling front. North Korea's North African embassies allegedly smuggle illicit rhino horn and elephant ivory, natural products much-prized in Asia. Their diplomats also smuggle Congolese gold. Often criminal proceeds literally pay North Korean embassy bills.

Reducing and potentially eliminating North Korea's lucrative money laundering operations was one goal of the harsh sanctions the Trump Administration placed on several Chinese and Russian financial entities. The U.S. called China's Bank of Dandong a money-laundering front. (The city of Dandong is just across the Yalu River from North Korea.) This September many major Chinese banks suspended work for North Korea, fearing targeted U.S. sanctions.

U.S. investigators alleged that Colombian and Mexican drug cartels have laundered money through unscrupulous Chinese banks. Cartel money buys Chinese merchandise, which is shipped to another nation and sold. The same tricks works for laundering North Korean funds.

Where does the money from the regime's organized criminal operations go?

The cash definitely supports Kim Jong Un's lavish lifestyle and buys luxury goods for his inner circle. But the funds also help purchase equipment, tools, raw materials and finished goods that advance North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

That means America definitely has a national security interest in fighting North Korean crime.

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