Archive for the ‘Drug smuggling’ Category

North Korean Meth

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2016-6-6): Mr. Stammers has been sentenced. According to Reuters (via The Guardian):

A British citizen who worked for a Philippines-based global criminal organisation was sentenced on Friday to more than 15 years in a US prison for conspiring to import 100kg of North Korean methamphetamine into the United States.

Scott Stammers, 47, was sentenced by US district judge Andrew Carter in Manhattan. He was one of five defendants who pleaded guilty in 2015 in a case stemming from a US Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.

His case is one of several prosecutions to flow out of the 2012 arrest in Liberia of Paul Le Roux, the head of a multinational drug and weapons trafficking enterprise who turned into a top government informant.

On Monday, Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, a former US army sergeant who prosecutors said oversaw contract killings for Le Roux, received a 20-year prison term for conspiring to kill a federal drug agent and an informant.

Prosecutors said Stammers, while living in the Philippines, managed drug and weapons trafficking for an organisation led by Zimbabwe-born Le Roux, who participated in the sting that resulted in his arrest.

Prosecutors said in 2012, Le Roux tasked Stammers and fellow British citizen Philip Shackels with storing and protecting a large amount of North Korean-produced methamphetamine obtained from members of a Hong Kong-based organisation.

Law enforcement in Thailand and in the Philippines later seized the methamphetamine.

In 2013, the same members of the Hong Kong organisation, Ye Tiong Tan Lim and Kelly Allan Reyes Peralta, agreed to supply 100kg of the methamphetamine to purported members of a South American drug cartel, prosecutors said.

The South American cartel members were actually DEA informants, prosecutors said.

Tan Lim and Peralta agreed to deliver the North Korean-produced narcotics in Thailand, where Stammers, Shackels and another defendant, Adrian Valkovic, would provide security, transportation and storage for the drugs, prosecutors said.

The five men were arrested by Thai law enforcement in September 2013 while working on the deal, after Stammers reported to Le Roux that “all main players are now on the ground,” prosecutors said.

Like Stammers, who received a 181-month prison term, the other defendants pleaded guilty to conspiring to import methamphetamine into the US.

Valkovic was sentenced in January to 113 months in prison, Peralta in April received a 91-month term, and Shackles was sentenced to 85 months. Tan Lim’s sentencing is set for Tuesday.

Read the full story here:
UK man jailed for 15 years in US for North Korean drug plot

ORIGINAL POST (2015-4-27): According to the AFP:

A British man pleaded guilty in New York on Thursday to conspiring to import 100kg of dangerously pure North Korean methamphetamines into the United States, American prosecutors said.

Scott Stammers, 46, was one of five defendants arrested by authorities in Thailand in September 2013 on suspicion of preparing to ship the drugs by boat.

He faces 10 years to life in prison when sentenced at a future date by a US judge. Three of the other defendants pleaded guilty earlier this month.

The fifth, 32-year-old Philip Shackels, is scheduled to go on trial in New York on 21 September.

Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara thanked authorities in Liberia, Romania and Thailand for assisting with the US investigation.

“Stammers’ scheme ended not with the North Korean methamphetamine flooding American streets as he had intended, but rather with a guilty plea in a Manhattan federal court,” Bharara said in a statement.

Defendants Ye Tiong Tan Lim and Kelly Allan Reyes Peralta had belonged to a criminal gang, which had claimed to have stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamines in the Philippines for storage, court documents say.

Read the full story here:
Briton Scott Stammers pleads guilty to North Korean drug smuggling plot


DPRK selling Viagra in Bangladesh

Friday, May 15th, 2015

According to UPI:

A North Korean restaurant manager in Bangladesh was arrested in connection with illegal sales of Viagra and alcohol on Friday.

The supervisor of Pyongyang Restaurant in Dhaka, identified as a North Korean woman, had been secretly selling the impotence drug alongside other pharmaceuticals, reported South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Bangladesh’s Customs Intelligence Investigation Department was tipped off about the illegal sale of alcohol – and a raid on Friday uncovered 210 pills of Viagra, other medications, 94 cans of Foster’s beer and ten bottles of whisky, according to Bangladesh news site Prothom-Alo.

Pyongyang Restaurant in Dhaka is presided over by North Korea embassy staff, and an embassy employee reportedly tried to block the investigators.

Moinul Khan, head of the Customs Intelligence Investigation Department, said legal steps would be taken against the one North Korean national who was arrested.

Yonhap reported Bangladesh news network Jamuna TV was first to report the arrest, and said the North Korea-operated restaurant was raising funds through illegal operations.

Bangladesh’s population is mostly Muslim, with 83 percent of the country adhering to the Islamic faith. Alcohol cannot be sold without government permission.

This is not the first time North Korean envoys have been connected to illegal activity in Bangladesh.

In March North Korean diplomat Son Yung Nam tried to transport $1.4 million worth of gold bars, 170 in total.

Bangladeshi customs officials said the gold was most likely headed for a “local criminal racket” in order to raise cash for North Korea.

Read the full story here:
North Korean arrested in Bangladesh for sales of Viagra, alcohol
Elizabeth Shim


Loopholes in UN sanctions against North Korea

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

A new article in 38 North by Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody.

Here is the introduction:

The latest United Nations report on North Korean sanctions has once again highlighted the role of foreign companies in cases of UN sanctions evasion. TheMarch 2014 report by the independent Panel of Experts assigned to monitor sanctions against the DPRK on behalf of the UN noted the widespread involvement of foreign companies.

A new SIPRI study backs up the UN report and goes further, showing that foreign company involvement in North Korean sanctions violations is not new and is more than just a trend-foreign companies and individuals travelling on foreign passports constitute an overwhelming majority of those identified as involved in the violation of both multilateral and unilateral sanctions dating as far back as 2004.While the majority of companies and individuals identified as involved in sanctions violations are either registered abroad or hold foreign passports, the international community continues to overwhelmingly target companies and individuals registered in North Korea. This targeting takes the form of “designations” by which the United Nations and the European Union together with countries such as Australia, Japan and the US order asset freezes on particular companies, as well as trade bans, and slap travel bans on named individuals traveling on North Korean passports.

These dynamics–identified for the first time in the SIPRI study–may have implications for policy-makers seeking to apply new rounds of sanctions on North Korea in response to any fourth nuclear test.

Most firms designated by the UN and the EU as well as Australia, Japan and the United States are North Korean-registered trading companies while virtually no North Korean transportation companies have been designated. In conREAD MOREtrast to trading companies which have few fixed assets and can easily switch name and other forms of corporate identity, transportation companies that utilize aircraft and ships are easier to monitor and track despite name-changes. Given the key role that transportation plays in the logistics of sanctions evasion, the SIPRI study provides a number of recommendations in support of these and other findings….


North Korean meth ring uncovered

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

UPDATE 3 (2013-11-24): NPR offers more details:

In Pyongyang, a spokesman for North Korean’s foreign ministry responded last week with a sharply worded statement saying the country strictly forbids drug manufacturing drug smuggling. It called the case “another politically motivated puerile charade” spread by “the Western reptile media.”

Read the full story here.

UPDATE 2 (2013-11-21): Yonhap reports the men plead not-guilty. According to the article:

The five men all entered not-guilty pleas in federal court in Manhattan Wednesday [2013-11-20]. If convicted, they face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in jail and the possibility of life in prison.

UPDATE 1 (2013-11-20): The New York Times offers additional details:

Five men have been charged with conspiracy to import 100 kilograms of nearly pure North Korean-produced methamphetamine into the United States, and federal officials said the case illustrates the emergence of North Korea as a player in the global drug trade.

The men were part of a sprawling international drug trafficking ring led by a former American soldier, Joseph Manuel Hunter, who has separately been charged with conspiring to murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and with importing cocaine into the United States, federal officials said.

“These guys worked for and with Joseph Hunter in a transnational criminal organization that involved drugs, weapons, chemicals, murder and a close involvement with rogue nations,” said a senior federal law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

The five men — including British, Chinese and Philippine nationals — were arrested in Phuket, Thailand, in September and were extradited to the United States on Tuesday night. They appeared in federal court in New York on Wednesday.

In January, the group agreed to provide 100 kilos of meth to a man they thought was a narcotics trafficker but was, in fact, a confidential source who was working with the DEA.

One of the defendants, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, 53, from China, bragged that his Hong Kong-based criminal group was the only organization that was able to produce meth in North Korea because of a crackdown there on the drug trade, according to a criminal indictment filed in federal court.

Lim told the DEA source that the North Korean government “already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they are not selling it anymore, they burned it,” Lim said.

The meth was first sent to the Philippines, and the men agreed to deliver the narcotics in Thailand, where they were told it would be shipped to the United States by boat.

One of the defendants said that his organization had stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamine in the Philippines because “we already anticipated this thing would happen. . . . [whereby] we cannot bring out our goods right now.”

The group arranged for a “dry run” and sent a shipping container of tea leaves from the Philippines to Thailand to test the delivery channel that would later be used to ship the meth.

The drugs were later seized by law enforcement officials in Thailand and in the Philippines. The North Korean meth tested at more than 99 percent pure, DEA officials said.

“Like many international criminal networks, these drug traffickers have no respect for borders and no regard for either the rule of law or who they harm as a result of their criminal endeavors,” DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said.

The five men could face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and the possibility of life in prison.

“Methamphetamine is a dangerous, potentially deadly drug, whatever its origin,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “If it ends up in our neighborhoods, the threat it poses to public health is grave whether it is produced in New York, elsewhere in the U.S., or in North Korea.”

Hunter, 48, the alleged leader of the ring, was arrested in September in Thailand and sent to the United States.

Nicknamed “Rambo,” Hunter had served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. When he left the service in 2004, he began a new life as a contract killer, according to senior law enforcement officials. In May, Hunter and two other former U.S. soldiers allegedly planned to kill a DEA agent and one of the agency’s informants for $800,000.

“My guys will handle it,” Hunter wrote in a May 30 e-mail when asked if he could execute the killings, according to an indictment. The drug traffickers who said they wanted to hire Hunter were part of an undercover sting operation.

Four other men have been arrested in the case, including another former U.S. Army sergeant, as well as German and Polish nationals.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-11-20): According to CNN:

U.S. drug agents in Thailand took custody of five men wanted in the United States on allegations of being part of a drug ring that sought to traffic in North Korean methamphetamine and other drugs, CNN has learned.

The men, who have British, Filipino, Taiwanese and Slovak citizenship, were being flown to New York to face charges, according to a source.

Thai authorities announced the arrests after the men were turned over to U.S. authorities. A U.S. law enforcement official said the charges would be made public soon.

The men are part of a broader investigation that federal prosecutors made public in September, filing charges against a group of former U.S. and European ex-military men in a murder-for-hire and drug-importation plot.

The Drug Enforcement Administration concocted a sting operation and arrested Joseph Hunter, a former U.S. Army sniper trainer nicknamed Rambo, and four others in the sting case.

The five more recently arrested were expelled by Thai authorities and put on a DEA plane to New York.

Additional details of the charges couldn’t be learned because they remain under seal.

Drug trafficking from North Korea has occurred for decades with at least 50 documented incidents. In previous years, North Korea had been linked to shipments of heroin and methamphetamine, according to the CIA World Factbook.

In 2003, a North Korean ship, Pong Su which was carrying nearly 300 pounds of heroin, was seized along the eastern coast of Australia after a four-day chase.

There isn’t enough information to determine whether the North Korean government is currently involved in drug trafficking, according to the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the U.S. State Department

“There have been no confirmed reports of large-scale drug trafficking involving DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) state entities since 2004,” it stated. “This suggests that state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or that the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs.”

Information on the case against Joseph Hunter can be found here and here.

Read the full story here:
5 men extradited to U.S. in North Korean meth case
Evan Perez


DPRK illicit trade activities

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Marcus Noland offers a new estimate of the DPRK’s illicit trade activities:


According to Marcus Noland:

The chart above shows our estimates of illicit revenues (inclusive of arms sales) as a share of merchandise exports. These are admittedly highly speculative and as a consequence we include high and low estimates as well as a best guess. As one can see, this share has been drifting down for more than a decade as both legitimate trade has expanded, and intensified interdiction efforts have crimped criminal activities. We estimate that in 2011, the illicit share of exports was in the range of 5-20 percent, with our best guess at roughly 10 percent. During the hearings, one of the witnesses, Professor Sung-yoon Lee, claimed that illicit activities account for up to 40 percent of the country’s trade; that statement was probably true in the past, but on our calculation, probably no longer true—though again, all this is highly speculative and anyone who claims that they know the real answer is, in the words of former Vice President Mondale, “a liar or a fool.”

A related issue is the degree to which central authorities exercise control over these activities. Some activities are almost surely subject to central control; some are probably conducted by state entities but without direction from central authorities (or perhaps without even their specific knowledge); some of these activities may well be conducted by what amount to local criminal gangs (which may include state, military, or party officials as participants); some of these activities may be organized by Chinese or other foreign gangs with the acquiesence of North Korea officials. Several years ago, for instance, when their was a crackdown no intellectual property rights theft in China, some of the counterfeiting activity allegedly moved across the border into North Korea where control was more lax.

The message is not that we should slack off in our attempts to eradicate these activities. Even they account for a declining share of the North Korean economy, they are still objectionable. But by the same token, we should not make the analytical mistake of thinking that shutting down these activities will halt the North Korean nuclear program or bring down the regime. The real message here is that the expansion of legitimate trade in recent years has made North Korea less dependent on criminal activities and less vulnerable to their disruption.


2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

It has been a while since much attention was focused on the DPRK’s capacity to produce narcotics for export, however, the DPRK did get a mention in the US Department of State’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

Here is what the report had to say (Source here):

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea)

Drug use may be rising within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), according to reports from DPRK refugees and travelers to North Korea. Chinese and South Korean press reports indicate that a substantial volume of methamphetamine continues to be produced within DPRK territory, mainly for transshipment to China. There are also reports of transactions between DPRK traffickers and large, organized criminal groups along the DPRK-China border, and of Chinese police enforcement targeting drugs entering China from the DPRK by way of enhanced patrols, periodic arrests, and drug seizures. However, the Chinese government rarely identifies the DPRK as the source of illicit drugs.

The proximity and availability of precursor chemicals in China likely contribute to the production of methamphetamine within North Korea. Reliable information is difficult to obtain regarding illicit activities within the DPRK territory, but drug production and other criminal activities, such as the counterfeiting of cigarettes, appear to have continued in 2012. There is insufficient current information, however, to confirm official DPRK state involvement in drug trafficking. There have been no confirmed reports of large-scale drug trafficking involving DPRK state entities since 2004. This suggests that state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or that the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs.

Despite the absence of reports of drug seizures linked directly to DPRK state institutions, the United States cannot entirely rule out the possibility of official DPRK state involvement in the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs. A relatively large investment in precursor chemicals is necessary to produce the volume of methamphetamine trafficked from North Korea, and it is unclear how individual criminals could independently organize such activity within such a tightly-controlled state. It is likely that some official corruption on both sides of the DPRK-China border facilitates drug trafficking.


A North Korean Corleone

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Sheena Chestnut Greitens writes in the New York Times:

What kind of deal do you make with a 20-something who just inherited not only a country, but also the mantle of one of the world’s most sophisticated crime families? When Kim Jong-un, who is thought to be 28 or 29, became North Korea’s leader in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, he became the de facto head of a mafia state.



“Recently” detained Japanese men returned home

Friday, January 20th, 2012

UPDATE 2 (2012-1-20): The DPRK has released two Japanese men recently detained in Rason. According to the Associated Press:

Two Japanese men detained in North Korea 10 months ago have returned home, a minister said Friday, adding it could be a “positive” diplomatic sign from the reclusive state.

The two arrived back in Japan this week, said Jin Matsubara, head of the National Public Safety Commission.

“I think this could be taken as a positive message from North Korea,” he told reporters.

Police declined to comment on whether the two men paid any money or why they were released.

The men, reportedly in their 30s and 40s were detained in a special economic zone near the communist state’s border with Russia. They returned via China.

Three Japanese men had initially been taken into detention in March last year, but one of them, who was in his 80s, was freed and returned to Japan in April, Jiji Press news agency and public broadcaster NHK said.

Reports said the three men were employees of a machine maintenance firm in Tokyo who had visited Rason city near North Korea’s border with Russia in March to check machines at a food manufacturing factory.

They were reportedly detained on charges of hiding drugs in canned goods to be exported to China and currency counterfeiting.

The release of these men was also covered in Bloomberg.

UPDATE 1 (2011-5-4): According to KCNA:

Japanese Detained in DPRK for Their Crimes

Pyongyang, May 4 (KCNA) — The Korean Central News Agency Wednesday issued the following report:

Masaki Furuya, former representative managing director of JP Dairin Co. Ltd., Hidehiko Abe, representative managing director of Realise Co. Ltd, of Japan, and Takumi Hirooka, managing director of Sugita Industrial Co. Ltd, of Japan, were put in custody by a relevant body on charges of drug trafficking and counterfeit after entering Rason City of the DPRK on March 14.

They admitted their crimes and their gravity.

Masaki Furuya had already been expelled from the DPRK and the two Japanese are called to legal accounts.

What they did is a very grave violation of the law of the DPRK and international law and they will, therefore, face proper legal actions.

The Wall Street Journal also reports that the DPRK held a Japanese man for drug smuggling from 2003-2009.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-4-20): According to Yonhap:

North Korea detained three Japanese men on apparent drug smuggling charges in its special economic zone last month, but it later released one man, a news report said Wednesday.

The three Japanese employees of a machine maintenance firm in Tokyo visited the city of Rason, near North Korea’s border with Russia, in March to check machines at a food manufacturing factory, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper said, citing unidentified sources.

They were detained on charges that they hid drugs in canned goods to be exported to China, though the North later allowed one of them to return to Japan, the newspaper said.

The North has demanded a large bail for the two detainees, it said.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs in Seoul, and the pro-North Korean association in Tokyo said they had no information.

The North’s state media have not reported on the case.

North Korea arrested a Japanese man on drug smuggling charges in 2003 before allowing him to return home on humanitarian grounds in 2009.

The news came days after North Korea confirmed the detention of a Korean-American man on a crime against the North.

The North said it will indict Jun Young-su, who was arrested in November, claiming he admitted his crime in the course of the investigation, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.

According to the Korea Times the men were detained in Rason.

Read the Yonhap story here:
N. Korea detains two Japanese men: report


“Ponghwajo” reports

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

UPDATE 1 (2012-1-19): Writing in the Asia Times, Michael Rank offers an update on the Ponghwa group (Ponghwajo, 봉화조):

It is widely assumed that if anyone knows what the North Koreans are up to, it’s the Chinese, and Chinese-language Internet sites have provided news stories about drug smuggling and border-crossing refugees. But there seems to have been a clampdown in the last year or two and these sources have dried up.

However, the Beijing magazine Kan Tianxia published a noteworthy article after Jong-il’s death highlighting the so-called Ponghwa group consisting of the sons (and presumably the occasional daughter) of the Pyongyang elite.

This privileged clique, which was first formed around 2000, consists of people mainly in their 30s and, the magazine claims, included Jong-eun himself after he returned home from his studies in Switzerland.

It says the group’s purpose is to strengthen Jong-eun’s power base and to act as his backstage support.

The article quotes an informed source as saying the Ponghwa group are mainly graduates of Kim Il-sung University, Pyongyang Foreign Languages University and other elite institutions, and that they tend to work in the security and intelligence apparatus and in top government organs such as the supreme procuratorate (prosecutor’s office).

The word Ponghwa means “smoke of battle” and also has connotations of “advance guard”. It is the name of the area of Pyongyang on the Taedong River that was the home of Kim Il-sung’s mother Kang Pan-sok; it is also the name of Pyongyang’s most elite hospital and there is a Ponghwa underground station.

The group is said to be headed by the sons of two generals. One of these is O Se-hyon, the second son of General O Kuk-ryol, who, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch (NKLW) blog, participated in a crucial meeting hours after Jong-il’s death which “began the order of operations which publicized KJI’s [Kim Jong-il’s] demise and taking on KJI’s remaining administrative and command mechanisms”.

The other leader is Kim Chol, son of General Kim Won-hong, who, according to rumors, was involved in various scandals but was nevertheless promoted to full general in 2009. General Kim, like the fathers of several Ponghwa members named in the article, belongs to the super-elite as is clear from his listing as a member of Jong-il’s funeral committee.

Ponghwa members also include the son of former veteran ambassador to Switzerland Ri Chol (Ri Tcheul) who is said to have been close to the young Jong-eun when he attended the International School in Bern, as well as the son of vice premier Kang Sok-ju. Kang was until 2010 the senior vice minister of foreign affairs and is, according to NKLW, a cousin of Jong-il; he also has has ties to Jong-eun’s mentors and uncle and aunt, Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyong-hui.

Members of elite groups such as the Ponghwa set are visible to the foreign community in Pyongyang where they frequent hard currency shops and restaurants, and have a clear parallel in China where the sons and daughters of top officials are assiduous in exploiting family connections.

Although Jong-eun is said to be as omniscient and omnipotent as his father and grandfather, almost nothing is known for sure about him. There is little doubt that he went to school in Switzerland, and the Chinese magazine claims this has been confirmed in North Korean “propaganda documents” – probably internal briefing materials distributed to senior officials.

Pyongyang watchers experienced a mild frisson when his mother was mentioned in a television documentary earlier this month, as this was the first time there had been official recognition that he has a mother. She has never been officially named, apparently because she was a Japanese-born Korean, and also because her relationship with Jong-il was not a happy one. She is said to have died in Paris in 2004.

Nobody is sure if Jong-eun was born in 1983 or 1984. According to a book written by his father’s former live-in chef [Kenji Fujimoto], his birthday is on January 8, but there were no signs of celebration in Pyongyang on that day. Perhaps it was considered unfitting to celebrate so soon after his father’s demise.

The only utterance attributed to Kim Jong-eun is a paean of praise to the joys of working all night. “Even when I work night after night, once I have brought joy to the comrade supreme commander, the weariness vanishes and a new strength courses through my whole body. This is what revolutionaries should live for.”

His father and grandfather were also fond of lauding the joys of working through the night, and there’s nothing North Korean leaders fear more than original thinking.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-4-18): Today the media was abuzz with rumors of the DPRK’s most exclusive club: Ponghwajo (aka: Bonghwajo, 봉화조).  This club is composed of the children of ruling elites, and according to the rumors, they not only generate substantial sums of hard currency, but they also know how to spend it.  Below are some stories about the group:

Choson Ilbo:

When Kim Jong-chol, the second son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, spent 10 leisurely days in Singapore in February going on a luxury shopping spree and attending an Eric Clapton concert, he was apparently joined by a brat pack of children of powerful officials in North Korea.

An official source here said Sunday intelligence information reveals Kim Jong-chol (30) and members of the so-called Ponghwajo or torch group not only visited Singapore, but also went to Macao and Malaysia to gamble and shop.

The Ponghwajo consists of the regime’s princelings, not to be confused with the children of early high-ranking officials who fought as revolutionaries along with former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. These sons of the revolutionaries are now in their 50s and 60s and have recently been tapped to serve in key positions under North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un.

But the Ponghwajo are in their 30s and 40s and are not viewed favorably by the regime’s leadership. Though they are often engaged in activities that generate dollar revenues through drug sales, counterfeiting and black market trade, they apparently do not wield much political power.

The group was formed in the early 2000s by O Se-won, the son of Gen. O Kuk-ryol, a senior leader in North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, and Kim Chol, the son of Kim Won-hong, head of the People’s Army Security Command. Its members include Ri Il-hyok, the first son of Ri Chol, former North Korean ambassador to Switzerland and the official in charge of handling Kim Jong-il’s secret bank accounts, as well as Kang Tae-seung, the eldest son of First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju and Jo Song-ho, the eldest son of the late Jo Myong-rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission who died last year.

Donga Ilbo:

Certain members of Bonghwajo, a club of the children of North Korea’s power elite, accompanied Kim Jong Chul, 30, the second son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, when the junior Kim attended Eric Clapton’s concert in Singapore in February.

Like “Crown Prince Party, or The Princelings,” a group of the children of prominent and influential senior communist officials in China, Bonghwajo is comprised of children of ranking officials of the North Korean Workers’ Party, military and senior members of its Cabinet.

Due to their parents’ influence, the children reportedly landed jobs at powerful organizations and are earning money through illegal activities such as counterfeiting and narcotics trafficking.

A source on North Korea said, “Kim Jong Chul is forming a closer relationship with Bonghwajo members after his younger brother Jong Un was named Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent.”

“When Jong Chul went to Singapore to watch Eric Clapton’s concert, certain Bonghwajo members accompanied him and paid all of the costs for his stay and shopping in Singapore.”

The source said, “Jong Chul and Bonghwajo members visited not only Singapore but also Macau and Malaysia in February,” adding, “Visiting the three countries, they gambled with up to 300,000 U.S. dollars and purchased expensive products at department stores.”

Formed in the early 2000s, Bonghwajo is reportedly led by O Se Hyon, second son of National Defense Commission Vice Chairman O Kuk Ryul, and Kim Chul, first son of the General Political Department Director Kim Won Hong at the People`s Army. Kim Jong Un joined the club when he turned 20, while Kim Chang Hyok, son of Kim Chung Il, deputy director of Kim Jong-Il`s personal secretariat, also became a member.

Bonghwajo was named after the village of Bonghwa in Pyongyang`s Kangdong County, where Kim Jong Il’s grandmother Kang Ban Sok lived. Bonghwa is construed as meaning “frontier” in North Korea.

Bonghwa Medical Center, the North’s top hospital, is where Kim Jong Il underwent treatment when he suffered a stroke in 2008.

Bonghwajo is also known to deal in illegal activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking. The Washington Times reported in May last year that Bonghwajo was involved in illegal activities, including circulation of “super notes,” or ultra-high precision counterfeit 100-dollar bills, and drug trafficking.

U.S. intelligence say O Se Hyon was entangled in the incident of the Bongsu-ho, North Korea’s drug trafficking boat that was caught by Australia in April 2003, and is related with counterfeit bills discovered in Las Vegas in 2004.

Bonghwajo members are said to be habitually taking drugs as well as trafficking them. Kim Chul, who works at the general surveillance bureau under the (North) Korean People’s Army Ministry, is earning money through drug trafficking in China and elsewhere and paying kickbacks to Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chul.

The group is even called a narcotics club because drug use is so rampant among members, with leader O Se Hyon undergoing treatment at a detention facility due to heroine inhalation.

Daily NK:

The existence of ‘Bonghwajo’, a grouping of the children of North Korea’s highest leadership including Kim Jong Eun, has made headlines in South Korea in recent days, raising questions about what role this group of powerful youngsters might be playing in the succession.

‘Bonghwajo’ members are said to be involved in foreign currency-earning businesses, many of them illegal, while also working in key areas of the National Security Agency, General Bureau of Reconnaissance, Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, Central Prosecutors’ Office and other high organs. They reportedly curry favour by financially supporting both Kim Jong Eun and elder brother Kim Jong Cheol.

Therefore, one analysis has it that the Bonghwajo, which is analogous with China’s ‘Princelings’ is both a group for the strengthening of Kim Jong Eun’s power and a private bank through which to finance the successor’s activities.

Cho Young Ki, a professor with Korea University, told The Daily NK today, “Bonghwajo can be read as being Kim Jong Eun’s support group. The Three Revolutionary Teams took the initiative in the establishment of Kim Jong Il’s power, and I presume that Bonghwajo might be performing the same role.”

Professor Cho added, “Kim Jong Cheol, who lost his practical power after publicizing the succession structure, is likely to be providing this group with his support.”

Head of World North Korea Study Center An Chan Il agreed, suggesting, “It appears that Bonghwajo may be intervening in personnel management while offering funds for Kim Jong Eun obtained from foreign currency-earning businesses.”

An went on to describe a group led by Kim Jong Il’s half brother Kim Pyong Il and Oh Il Cheong (the son of former Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Oh Jin Wu) at the time of Kim Jong Il’s elevation.

An said, “Even though we didn’t know their name, there was a group that came before ‘Bonghwajo’, and the nature of ‘Bonghwajo’ could be the same as that of the group led by Kim Pyong Il.” He went on, “Kim Pyong Il worked as the group’s main leader, but then he was put in a ‘sub-branch’ and got sent overseas. But Oh Il Cheong switched line and is now a Lieutenant-General.”

The ‘Bonghwajo’ group may well consider that it is in the same boat as Kim Jong Eun. Therefore, its members are likely to work to expand their power in the Party, military and foreign currency earning organs so to ensure Kim Jong Eun’s succession and their own access to power and money for the years to come.

The core members of the Bonghwajo are said to be Oh Se Hyun, the second son of Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission Oh Keuk Ryul, Kim Cheol, who is the eldest son of Kim Won Hong (the vice director in charge of political organization in the General Political Department of the People’s Army), Kang Tae Sung, the eldest son of Vice Premier of the Cabinet Kang Suk Ju, Kim Cheol Woong, the second son of Kim Choong Il (a former vice director in Kim Jong Il’s Secretary’s Office), and Cho Sung Ho, the eldest son of Cho Myeong Rok (former first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission).

However, professor Cho pointed out, “Even if Bonghwajo make an effort to establish Kim Jong Eun’s smooth power succession, it is doubtful whether they can reign properly. The extent of their activities and legitimacy may decide whether or not they are able to support Kim Jong Eun.”

Meanwhile, Yonhap News has claimed that drugs are so prevalent within the group that it is known as a drug club, and Oh Se Hyun has reportedly been treated for addiction.


Mangyongbong 92 to be put to use in Rason for tourism

Sunday, August 7th, 2011


Pictured above: (L) Mangyongbong-92 in the Wonsan Harbor. (R)  American Budweiser Beer and dried fish served on the Mangyongbong-92

UPDATE 3 (2013-2-26): The Singaporean ship,  Royale Star, has been delivered to Rajin to handle tourist cruises. According to Google Earth imagery (2012-9-21), the Mangyongbong-92 has been returned to its primary port in Wonsan.

UPDATE 2 (2011-9-3): The Telegraph and ITN (UK) put together a humorous take on the cruise here.

UPDATE 1  (2011-8-31): According to the Associated Press:

The maiden voyage — a trial run — arrived Wednesday, carrying dozens of Chinese travel agents, international media and North Korean officials.

About 500 North Koreans lined up with military precision at the Rason port for a red carpet send-off Tuesday, waving small flags and plastic flowers while revolutionary marches such as “Marshal Rides a White Horse” blared over the loudspeakers. Streamers swirled and balloons spiraled skyward.

The Mangyongbong, a refurbished Japanese-built cargo ship with rusty portholes and musty cabins, was used for the 21-hour overnight cruise tracing the length of North Korea’s east coast. Some passengers slept on wooden bunkbeds while others were assigned mattresses on the floor. Simple meals were served cafeteria-style on metal trays.

A plaque on board commemorated a 1972 tour of the boat by North Korea’s founder, late President Kim Il Sung, and bright red posters emblazoned with his sayings decorated the walls.

Park promised a “more luxurious” ship capable of carrying up to 900 passengers, perhaps next year. He said the goal is to bring as many as 4,000 visitors a day from Rason to Mount Kumgang during the peak summer season, up from some 500 per week now.

“People from any country — Jamaica, Japan, Singapore, people from various countries — can come to Rason and don’t require a visa,” said Rason’s vice mayor, Hwang Chol Nam. “That’s the reality.”

But other restrictions remain. Hwang said visitors must book with approved travel agents and remain in their guides’ company throughout. Mobile phones must be left behind in China.

It remains to be seen how many Chinese tourists will be interested in the new tours. With incomes rising, Chinese are traveling abroad in rising numbers, thronging tour groups to Europe, Thailand, Japan and South Korea, with a small but growing number making the short trip to neighboring North Korea.

A rush of American visitors is unlikely. A long-standing U.S. State Department travel warning says North Korea strictly monitors visitors and harshly punishes law-breakers and reminds Americans that the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

A senior South Korean official said North Korea would have trouble drawing investors and tourists after the way the North dealt with South Korean businesses.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry plans to send a letter to foreign embassies asking them not to cooperate with any new Diamond Mountain tours offered by North Korea, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name was not used.

North Korea’s latest moves are likely to upset Hyundai — but that might be the strategy of Pyongyang officials riding out conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s leadership, which ends next year, said Yoon Deok-ryong, an economist at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.

“If they bring potential investors into the Mount Kumgang area, Hyundai would be upset and try to mobilize possible supporters in Parliament so the next government in South Korea will improve inter-Korean relations,” he said. “That is I think the design of the North Korean government.”

Wang Zhijun, a Chinese hotel manager from Jilin province who joined the trip free of charge, said it won’t be hard to sell the cruise to tourists in his region, which has a large ethnic Korean population and lacks coastline of its own.

But, he said, the price would have to stay low, suggesting around 2000 yuan (US$310) per passenger for an all-inclusive, five-day trip.

“It ought to be very popular. There are a lot of tourists already coming across to Rason,” Wang said. “People from China’s northeast would really like this kind of trip because it’s a cruise. You can enjoy the sea.”

The AFP also reported from the bosom of the Mangyongbong:

It has karaoke and fresh coffee, but the bathrooms on the lower decks are out of water and some guests sleep on the floor. Welcome aboard North Korea’s first cruise ship.

Keen to boost tourism and earn much-needed cash, authorities in the impoverished nation have decided to launch a cruise tour from the rundown northeastern port city of Rajin to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang.

In a highly unusual move, the reclusive regime invited more than 120 journalists and Chinese tour operators on board the newly-renovated, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong ship for a trial run of the 21-hour journey.

The vessel left one of Rajin’s ageing piers on Tuesday to the sound of rousing music, as hundreds of students and workers holding colourful flowers stood in line and clapped in unison.

“The boat was only renovated one week ago,” said Hwang Chol Nam, vice mayor of the Rason special economic zone, as he sat on the top deck at a table filled with bottles of North Korean beer, a large plate of fruit, and egg and seafood dishes.

“But it has already made the trip to Mount Kumgang and back. I told people to test the ship to make sure it was safe,” said the 48-year-old, dressed in a crisp suit adorned with a red pin sporting late leader Kim Il-Sung’s portrait.

The project is the brainchild of North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group and the government of Rason, a triangular coastal area in the northeast that encompasses Rajin and Sonbong cities, and borders China and Russia.

Set up as a special economic zone in 1991 to attract investment to North Korea, it never took off due to poor infrastructure, chronic power shortages and a lack of confidence in the reclusive regime.

Now though, authorities are trying to revive the area as the North’s economy falters under the weight of international sanctions imposed over the regime’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and atomic weapons.

The country is desperately poor after decades of isolation and bungled economic policies, and is grappling with persistent food shortages.

In Rason, Hwang said authorities had decided to focus on three areas of growth — cargo trade, seafood processing and tourism.

North Korea has only been open to Western tourists since 1987 and remains tightly controlled, but more destinations are gradually opening up to tour groups keen to see the country for themselves.

Mount Kumgang, though, is at the heart of a political dispute between North and South Korea after a tourist from the South was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

And Rason, where the cruise begins, is a poor area. The tours are tightly monitored, and the only brief contact with locals is with guides, tourist shop owners and hotel employees.

Visitors can expect only brief glimpses of everyday life through the windows of tour buses, as locals — many dressed in monochrome clothing — cycle past or drive the occasional car in otherwise quiet streets.

Small apartment blocks, many of them run down, are interspersed with monuments to the glory of the country’s leaders.

A portrait of current leader Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung greets visitors as they walk through the vast lobby of the large, white hotel in Rajin.

“The book is a silent teacher and a companion to life,” reads a quotation from the late Kim, hung over glass cases full of books about North Korea, with titles like “The Great Man Kim Jong-Il” and “Korea — a trailblazer.”

The rooms are spartan but clean. But there is no Internet connection anywhere in the area, and the phone lines are unreliable and expensive. Foreign mobile phones are confiscated by tour guides as travellers enter the country.

Hwang said the government in Rason was trying to address communication problems and had signed a 26-year exclusive agreement with a Thai firm to set up Internet in the area, which he hoped would be running in September.

He acknowledged, however, that non-business related websites would likely be blocked, with the media tightly controlled in North Korea.

Many of Rason’s tourists come from neighbouring China. The area sees an average of 150 travellers from China every day during the summer peak season.

One Chinese national from the southeastern province of Fujian who gave only his surname, Li, said he had come to North Korea after a business meeting on the Chinese side of the border.

“We’ve come here mainly to see what changes there have been compared to our country… I like to go to places I’ve never been to before,” he said, standing in front of a huge portrait of Kim Il-Sung.

Simon Cockerell, managing director of Koryo Group, a Beijing-based firm that specialises in tours to North Korea, conceded that Rason may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but said its attraction lay in the unknown.

“A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms — the least visited part of the least visited country,” he said.

Back on the boat, Chinese tour operators sang karaoke in a dining hall decked out with North Korean flags as a waitress made fresh coffee, while guests drank beer and ate dried fish at plastic tables up on deck.

Inside, some cabins were decked out with bunk beds, while others just had mattresses laid out on the floor. The better rooms had tables, chairs and private washrooms.

Water in bathrooms on the vessel — used as a ferry between North Korea and Japan until 1992 when it started shipping cargo — was unreliable and when available, was brown.

But Park Chol Su, vice president of Taepung, said he had big plans for the tour if it attracted enough visitors.

He wants to invite more than 100 tourist agencies from Europe in October to sample the same trip, in a bid to attract travellers from further afield.

Authorities have promised no visas will be needed to go on the cruise and, if all goes to plan, the ship will be upgraded to a more comfortable one.

“Next year, we aim to get a bigger, nicer boat that can accommodate 1,000 people. We’d rent that from another country in Southeast Asia,” he said.

Some great photos of the trip are here.

A timeline of Kumgang stories from the shooting until today can be found here.

Read the full story here:
North Korea starts group tours from China to mountain resort formerly operated with South
Associated Press

ORIGINAL POST (2011-9-7): The Mangyongbong-92 is going to be used for tourism. According to Yonhap:

North Korea appears likely to use a ferry to try to attract foreign tourists, a source familiar with the issue said Friday, in what could be an attempt to earn much-needed hard currency.

For decades, the Mankyongbong-92 served as the only shuttle between North Korea and Japan, which have no diplomatic relations, and was mostly used by pro-North Korean residents in Japan.

The 9,700-ton ship was later used to transport cargoes before Tokyo blocked its entry as part of economic sanctions over Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

The ferry has also been suspected of being used for trafficking drugs, counterfeit money and other contraband goods.

North Korea is now preparing to use the vessel as a cruise ship for Chinese and other foreign businessmen during an upcoming international fair in Rason, the country’s special economic zone near China and Russia, the source said.

The North plans to use the ship to take the businessmen on a sightseeing trip in waters off the economic zone at the end of the international fair later this month.

The move is widely seen as the North’s attempt to use the ship for its tourism project.

“It is meaningful in that the Mankyongbong-92 would set sail as a cruise ship for the first time,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a researcher at the IBK Economic Research Institute, noting the North seems to be revitalizing tourism in the economic zone and attempting to attract Chinese tourists to earn hard currency.

The North designated Rason as a special economic zone in 1991 and has since striven to develop it into a regional transportation hub, though no major progress has been made.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea pushing to use ferry to attract foreign tourists
Kim Kwang-tae