Archive for the ‘Drug smuggling’ Category

Rising cost of narcotics in DPRK drives up home, market prices

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No.09-11-20-1

The recent hike in narcotics prices in North Korea appears to be due to rising prices on homes and in markets.

According to Daily NK, “Recent narcotics prices have grown considerably,” and, “If narcotics prices rise, market prices rise across the board.”

As North Korean officials crack down on narcotics production and distribution, the availability of Philopon and other narcotics has been sharply reduced. This reduction in supply is driving up prices.

Drug prices in North Korea first jumped sharply in February of last year, as officials began cracking down on production centers in Hamheung and Pyeongseong.

These raids were said to sharply reduce narcotics production, and in the same month the price of one kilogram of “Ice” shot up to 1,000 won (approx. 2,700 USD), and then again to as much as 2,000 won in April. As soon as narcotics prices rose, housing prices also increased and the price of all factory-produced goods in markets went up. It is as if inside North Korea, the rise in narcotics prices causes the price of everything to increase.

As late as fall 2007, a kilogram of Philopon ran for 5 million won, and could be easily found by those who were looking. By 2008, however, as officials cracked down harder on Philopon producers and dealers, the price had risen exponentially.

Another factor impacting drug prices in North Korea is the sharply growing number of users in China. Despite the efforts of Chinese police, they have been unable to curb the growing flow of narcotics across the border and into the border regions.

In October 2009, one kilogram of Philopon ran from between 50-70 million won, depending on the quality. When smuggled into China, the drugs bring between 150-200 thousand yen (80-100 thousand DPRK won), which when exchanged for ROK currency equals between 30-40 thousand won.

In North Korea, drugs determine housing prices, with the most expensive house in an average city going for the price of one kilogram of Ice. Rising housing costs drive up prices in markets, so that now a kilogram of rice sells for 2200 won.

The price of rice generally falls after the harvest season, but this year remained relatively unchanged. In April of last year, food prices shot up from 2000 to 3000 won for a kilogram of rice, and while this was also related to food shortages, the rising cost of narcotics played a large role.

The reason narcotics prices have such an impact is due to the particular nature of drug sales in North Korea. Drug peddlers deal in cash with narcotics producers, but as cash can be hard to come by, these dealers put up houses as collateral before taking the drugs to China.

In addition, most Chinese renminbi and U.S. dollars circulating in North Korean markets are from the cross-border drug trade, and the fees charged by money-handlers in North Korean markets drive prices up considerably.


Bureau 39 update

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Vanity Fair has published a lengthy article about the DPRK’s mysterious Bureau 39 which is allegedly behind a number of illicit activities such as counterfeiting US currency and cigarettes, smuggling drugs and bilking western insurance companies with fraudulent claims. The full article is worth reading here.  (h/t DPRK Studies)

Of immediate interest, here is the supposed location of Bureau 39 just south of the Grand People’s Study House:


Click image to enlarge

Here is a short excerpt:

Hamer’s three-year investigation—code-named Operation Smoking Dragon—began not with supernotes but with counterfeit cigarettes, which were being shipped by freight container from China into California ports by the millions. These, too, says Asher, originated in North Korea, and were the subject of a report by the Coalition of Tobacco Companies, one of whose investigators made an undercover visit, posing as a buyer, to North Korean factories in Pyongyang and the northeastern city of Rajin. These turn out fake Western brands, such as Marlboros, in such quantities that they generate as much as $720 million in gross revenue each year. Hamer set up a number of front operations to get inside the cigarette-smuggling business, and soon had many contacts who dealt with him as if he were a smuggler, too. In the spring of 2004, Hamer and his colleagues were asked by F.B.I. headquarters to see if they could acquire North Korean supernotes. One of Hamer’s best customers, Chao Tung “John” Wu, who eventually pleaded guilty to smuggling counterfeit currency, cigarettes, and narcotics, as well as conspiring to broker a deal for Chinese-made, shoulder-fired missiles, but died before he was sentenced, promised he could supply them with the help of a man who was a frequent visitor to North Korea—Wilson Liu. The notes were so good, Wu said at a secretly recorded meeting, “you can even go to Las Vegas and slide them into the machines—they take them right away.”


Tunnels, Guns and Kimchi: North Korea’s Quest for Dollars – Part II

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

Yale Global
Bertil Linter

BANGKOK: The global economic meltdown has claimed an unexpected victim: North Korea’s chain of restaurants in Southeast Asia. Over the past few months, most of them have been closed down “due to the current economic situation,” as an Asian diplomat in the Thai capital Bangkok put it. This could mean that Bureau 39, the international money-making arm of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party – which runs the restaurants and a host of other, more clandestine front companies in the region – is acutely short of funds. Even if those enterprises were set up to launder money, operational costs and a healthy cash-flow are still vital for their survival. And, as for the restaurants, their main customers were South Korean tourists looking for a somewhat rare, comfort food from the isolated North of the country. The waitresses, all of them carefully selected young, North Korean women dressed in traditional Korean clothing, also entertained the guests with music and dance.

But thanks to the global economic crisis, not only has the tourist traffic from South Korea slowed, the fall in the value of won has also reduced their buying power. The South Korean won plummeted to 1,506 to the US dollar in February, down from 942 in January 2008. No detailed statistics are available, but South Korean arrivals in Thailand – which is also the gateway to neighboring Cambodia and Laos – are down by at least 25 percent.

Though staunchly socialist at home, the North Korean government has been quite successful in running capitalist enterprises abroad, ensuring a steady flow of foreign currency to the coffers in Pyongyang. North Korea runs trading companies in Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau and Cambodia, which export North Korean goods – mostly clothing, plastics and minerals such as copper – to the region. At the same time, they import various kinds of foodstuffs, light machinery, electronic goods, and, in the past, dual-purpose chemicals, which have civilian as well as military applications. Those companies were – and still are – run by the powerful Daesong group of companies, the overt arm of the more secretive Bureau 39.

North Korea embarked on its capitalist ventures when, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the country was hit by a severe crisis caused by the disruption in trading ties with former communist allies. More devastatingly, both the former Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1993 began to demand that North Korea pay standard international prices for goods, and that too in hard currency rather than with barter goods. According to a Bangkok-based Western diplomat who follows development in North Korea, the country’s embassies abroad were mobilized to raise badly needed foreign exchange. “How they raised money is immaterial,” the diplomat says. “It can be done by legal or illegal means. And it’s often done by abusing diplomatic privilege.”

North Korea’s two main front companies in Thailand, Star Bravo and Kosun Import-Export, are still in operation. In the early 2000s, Thailand actually emerged as North Korea’s third largest foreign trading partner after China and South Korea.

Bangkok developed as a center for such commercial activities and Western intelligence officers based there became aware of the import and sale of luxury cars, liquor and cigarettes, which were brought into the country duty-free by North Korean diplomats. In a more novel enterprise, the North Koreans in Bangkok were reported to be buying second-hand mobile phones – and sending them in diplomatic pouches to Bangladesh, where they were resold to customers who could not afford new ones. In early 2001, high-quality fake US$100 notes also turned up in Bangkok and the police said at the time that the North Korean embassy was responsible as some of its diplomats were caught trying to deposit the forgeries in local banks. The North Korean diplomats were warned not to try it again.

The restaurants were used to earn additional money for the government in Pyongyang – at the same time, they were suspected of laundering proceeds from North Korea’s more unsavory commercial activities. Restaurants and other cash-intensive enterprises are commonly used as conduits for wads of bills, which banks otherwise would not accept as deposits.

For years, there have been various North Korean-themed restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities. But the first in Southeast Asia opened only in 2002 in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. It became an instant success – especially with the thousands of South Korean tourists who flocked to see the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. It was so successful that Pyongyang decided to open a second venue in the capital Phnom Penh in December 2003. A fairly large restaurant in the capital’s Boulevard Monivong, which offered indifferent Korean staple kimchi and other dishes and live entertainment by North Korean waitresses, closed earlier this year for lack of business.

In 2006, yet another Pyongyang Restaurant – as the eateries were called – opened for business in Bangkok. It was housed in an impressive, purpose-built structure down a side alley in the city’s gritty Pattanakarn suburb, far away from areas usually frequented by Western visitors but close to the North Korean embassy and the offices of its front companies in the Thai capital. This was followed by an even grander restaurant in Thailand’s most popular beach resort, Pattaya, which was also housed in a separate building with a big parking lot outside for tour buses. A much smaller Pyongyang restaurant opened in Laos’s sleepy capital Vientiane, but that one became popular not with South Korean tourists, but with Chinese guest workers and technicians. The Vientiane restaurant may be the only North Korean eatery that is still in operation.

After years of watching North Korea’s counterfeiting and smuggling operations, the United States began tightening the screws on Pyongyang’s finances in September 2005. This occurred after Banco Delta Asia, a local bank in Macau, was designated as a “financial institution of primary money-laundering concern.” The bank almost collapsed, and North Korea’s assets were frozen. The money was eventually released as part of an incentive for North Korea’s concession in the Six-Party talks and returned to North Korea via a bank in the Russian Far East. But, coupled with UN sanctions, the damage to North Korea’s overseas financial network was done – including the ability of Pyongyang’s many overseas front companies to operate freely. For example, the two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea peaked at US$343 million in 2006 – but then began to decline. It was down to US$100 million in 2007, and US$70.8 million in 2008.

Now with North Korea conducting a second nuclear test and firing off missiles, Washington has raised the possibility of the re-listing of North Korea as a state that supports terrorism. If that were to happen, many private companies would become hesitant to deal with Pyongyang and its enterprises for fear of being blacklisted by the US Treasury.

With its various money-making enterprises coming unstuck, Pyongyang is increasingly under pressure. The worldwide financial crisis has already put North Korea in a tight corner. There was never anything to suggest that the money earned by North Korea’s economic ventures abroad were to be used for social development at home, or to be spent on basic necessities such as putting food on the tables of the country’s undernourished people. Now, there won’t even be food for sale to South Korean tourists in the region.


DPRK not about to collapse

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Newsweek has an interesting article which makes the case that the DPRK economy is not as bad as the public tends to think.  According to the article:

…North Korea isn’t broke—and its economy has been moving away from collapse in recent years-. The Hermit Kingdom may not be getting rich—the CIA estimates its GDP at roughly $40 billion, ranking 96th in the world. But it’s not failing either, and for the past decade, its economy has grown at an average rate of about 1.5 percent a year, according to South Korean statistics. While Seoul estimates that the North’s GDP shrank by 2.3 percent last year, some analysts say it actually expanded, arguing that South Korea’s recent figures on the North are deflated for political purposes.

To understand how the Dear Leader has managed this, you must first drop a few of the myths surrounding his country. First, the North Koreans haven’t been living in caves for the past two decades, nor is their economy de-industrializing, as is sometimes reported. Instead, with help from Beijing, Pyongyang has revamped its outdated infrastructure in recent years and repaired the mining facilities that were battered by massive floods during the mid-’90s. It now aims to shift from recovery to growth, with a focus on steel production, mining and light-industrial manufacturing.

Second, the North doesn’t have to rely on the black market to support itself. True, Pyongyang has sold missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, and annual revenue from such exports is roughly $100 million, but analysts say that other illicit activities like drug trafficking and counterfeiting add very little to that sum. According to a former U.S. diplomat in East Asia who asked not to be named discussing sensitive intelligence, during the Bush years Washington investigated the oft-heard counterfeiting accusations, and found that the notes in question had actually been produced privately by former Chinese military officials, in China. “The Treasury Department couldn’t find a single shred of hard evidence pointing to North Korean production of counterfeit money,” the American says.

The biggest myth is that North Korea remains isolated. Despite supposedly comprehensive sanctions, Pyongyang today has diplomatic and commercial relations with more than 150 countries, including most European Union members. North Korea trades its abundant gold reserves—estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 tons—in cities like London, Zurich and Hong Kong, and buys and sells shares on the New York Stock Exchange via a legitimate London-based brokerage firm it essentially owns. While there are no figures on the volume of such transactions, the former U.S. diplomat says that such activities are “a substantial source of hard currency for North Korea.” In recent years, European firms have also begun eyeing investment opportunities there; In 2004, the London-based energy firm Aminex signed a 20-year deal with Pyongyang for exclusive rights to explore on- and offshore oil-and-gas deposits. Other companies are looking for ways to exploit the North’s cheap labor supply, and while most of these deals have yet to take off for technical and political reasons, ties to the outside world are expanding. In 2008, the country’s overall trade rose 30 percent from the previous year, reaching a record $3.8 billion, including imports of $2.7 billion, according to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

North Korea has proved adept at avoiding restrictions: when Tokyo slapped it with sanctions five years ago, Pyongyang simply reshuffled its deals, turning to the BRIC economies as well as South Korea and Singapore. Meanwhile, China now accounts for nearly three quarters of North Korea’s total trade, sending it crude oil, petroleum and manufactured goods in exchange for coal, steel and rare metals like tungsten and magnesite. The North’s natural resources have become a major growth engine: the Musan mine in the country’s northwest is now said to be one of the largest iron-ore fields in Asia, and could eventually yield 10 million tons of ore a year.

Finally, there’s the southern connection. Despite deteriorating relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, factories at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex are still operating at full gear, earning the North about $35 million annually—enough for eight or nine No-dong missiles. And that figure was projected (before the current crisis hit) to jump to $100 million by next year, says Lim Eul Chul of Seoul’s Kyungnam University.

I should point out that the CIA estimate of the DPRK’s GDP is among the highest.  Most other estimates are below $30 billion for 2008.

Read the full article here:
How Kim Affords His Nukes: The myth of a failing economy.


Petrov on DPRK-Australian relations

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

The Nautilus Institute has published an aritcle by Leonid Petrov on 60 years of Australian/DPRK relations.

Topics covered: on again/off agian diplomatic history, Australian foreign policy, bilateral relations, DPRK engagement with Australia, Pong Su (drug smuggling), denuclearization, economic sanctions, DPRK canberra embassy closing.

You may read the article on line here.

You may download a PDF of the article here: petrov-australia-dprk.pdf


DPRK drug smuggling well established

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

According to the Daily NK, the drug smuggling in the DPRK has matured from a small scale disorganized enterprise into a into a high-powered cartelized industry.  Whereas in the past, competition from lots of smugglers led to higher crime levels, cartelization has calmed things down.  Additionally, powerful cadres are involved in the trade now, meaning many local officials are powerless or disinterested in interfering with the trade.

As for the prices:

Mr. Kim explained specifically that “In 2006, one kilogram of Bingdu (氷毒), which means Philopon, so called ‘ice’ in North Korea, sold at 1.2-1.5 million won (approx. USD375-469) and one kilogram of opium sold at five million won (approx. USD1,563). As the regulation of narcotics was strengthened in 2007, one kilogram of Bingdu went up to eighteen million won (approx. USD5,625) and opium sold for ten million won (approx. USD3125) in September, 2007.”

He added that “Until 2006, the most expensive house in the downtown of a provincial capital sold for eight million won, but after drug prices rose, the price of those houses went up to fifteen million won (approx. USD4,688). Currently, here in North Hamkyung Province, one kilogram of ‘Bingdu’ sells for ten thousand dollars and opium sell for five thousand dollars. The prices of houses of the highest quality also rose from two thousand to three thousand won.

Read the full article here:
Drug Smugglers in Collusion with Cadres
Daily NK


DPRK stiffens drug laws

Friday, May 16th, 2008

From the Daily NK:

“The North’s adoption of partial open door policy has resulted in the rapid spread of western culture into the society, which could trigger the collapse of socialist ideology and regime. So, as part of efforts to prevent the collapse, the North adopted a series of amendments to its criminal laws,” explained Choi.

“In March 2008, North Korea introduced another amendment according to which individuals charged with drug possession are to be sentenced to death by shooting because drug use has been increasing among people suffering from the lack of basic necessities and medicine despite the state’s strict drug control,” said Choi.

According to the 2004 amendment, North Korea sentences those charged with drug manufacturing to two to five years in the labor reeducation camp (Article 216), those with drug use to up to two years in the labor-training corps (Article 217), and those with drug trafficking and sales to either up to five years in the labor camp (Article 218).

“The amendment of March 2008 further stiffened penalties against drug offenders. Individuals found to be possessing more than 300 grams of drug are to be sentenced to death penalty,” Choi said, “In addition, North Korea which did not have sufficient legal grounds to punish individuals involved with new types of offenses including making international phone calls, possessing copies of foreign pictures and smuggling now appears to have strengthened legal punishment against them.”

The passage of these statutes is probably as close as the DPRK government will get to admitting that markets for recreational drug use are firmly established.  Stiffening drug laws will make no difference to the dissipation of the state’s socialist ideology, but North Korea’s drug cartels will certainly benefit.

The Economics of Cartels

In a competitive market, it is difficult to maintain a cartel.  Cartels work by restricting output to raise prices.  The problem is that once everyone in the cartel has done so, each individual member has an incentive to sell more than his quota to capture those artificially high profits.  After everyone figures out how to do this, the cartel falls apart and prices return to their competitive equilibrium.

So how can cartel members be relied on to maintain their production quotas and not cheat/sabotage each other?  Many times this is done by group acquiescence to government statutes and regulations.  Restrictions on prices, services, quality standards…these can all be used to protect incumbent firms by driving up costs for smaller competitors, and what’s more, the government pays for the enforcement.

And now for the conspiracy theory 

If there is not already a cartel of “companies” or families seeking to corner the DPRK drug market, there soon will be.  Stiffening criminal penalties for drug production simply raises the costs of small-scale producers and distributors, forcing them out of the market because they cannot afford protection/bribes.  This helps the big guys, who can afford these services, to maintain their price premium.

No doubt the groups coming to dominate the drug trade had representatives involved in making sure these statutes were changed (meaning they are now sufficiently politically connected to protect themselves).  What will be the effects on crime?  Well, if the cartel members keep to their agreements, crime could drop, and police would only be used to break up non-cartel operations.

Small-scale producers will respond by shifting into “high quality, low volume” drugs (much like in prohibition when smugglers carried liquor over beer and wine). 

Thoughtful comments appreciated. 

Read the full story here:
North Korea Has Introduced Amendments to Its Criminal Codes to Save the Regime from Falling Apart
Daily NK
Yang Jung A


Defector detained for drug smuggling

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Joong Ang Daily
Brian Lee

A North Korean defector has been charged and detained for trying to smuggle North Korean-made Philopon, an illegal stimulant, into the country, the Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office said yesterday.

Identified only by his last name, Park, the 38 year-old tried to receive the drugs in a package mailed from China that was intercepted at Incheon International Airport, prosecutors said in a release.

Customs officials who monitor the incoming packages discovered 47 grams of the drug.

The package was addressed to Park; investigators arrested him on Wednesday. The package bore a Chinese address for the sender but Park told investigators that the drugs were manufactured in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province in North Korea and delivered through another North Korean he had contacted in China.

Park defected to South Korea in January 2002 and established a small trading company doing business with Japan, China and Russia.

He told investigators that a member of a Japanese criminal group had asked to become a supplier of the drugs. The package was supposed to be a sample. Park also said he had already wired 3 million won ($3,200) to a bank in China for the other North Korean.


North Korea Is Taken off U.S. Drug-Trafficking Countries List

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Bloomberg (h/t One Free Korea)
Bomi Lim

North Korea was dropped from the U.S. list of countries producing illicit drugs, a sign of further relief of tensions between the two countries.

“North Korea is not affecting the United States as much as the requirements on the list,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christy McCampbell said on Sept. 17 in Washington, according to a transcript of her speech on the State Department Web site.

Ties are improving between the U.S. and North Korea after a February agreement on ending the government in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. As North Korea moves to scale back the program, the U.S. has promised to review ways of improving ties with the communist country, including removing it from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.

North Korea agreed to a year-end deadline to disclose and disable its nuclear facilities after it shut down and sealed its sole operating reactor at Yongbyon in July.

North Korea was first mentioned in the annual presidential report on “major illegal drug transit and drug-producing countries” in 2003, when President George W. Bush said the U.S. would fight the country’s suspected drug trafficking.


Chinese Government Demands Abolition of North Korean Drug

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

Researcher Raphael Pearl at the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) maintained that recently, the Chinese crime syndicate has interfered in North Korean drug manufacturing and deals. Through the steady appearance of the up and coming wealthy class who have amassed a lot of money through sales, a significant amount of drugs began to be circulated in China.

North Korea-Chinese businessman Kim Myung Guk (pseudonym), who is in charge of North Korean mineral exports, frequently enters Hamheung to get minerals (uranium concentrate). Presently, Mr. Kim is in Dandong, China to meet Chinese businessmen.

Mr. Kim said, “The philopon from Hamheung is the best. In Pyongyang, Shinuiju, and Chongjin, Hamheung-made philipons are the most trusted. So I frequently receive requests to deal Hamheung philopon from other businessmen.”

Mr. Kim said, “It got to the point that the Chinese government requested inspection of the Hamheung factory, so the North Korean authorities carried out partial abolition. Nowadays, there is hardly anyone among the North Korean businessmen who do not know about the fact that Hamheung is the center of drug production.”

The Chinese government, when North Korean drugs started coming in on a mass-scale, pointed out the Heungnam Pharmaceutical Factory in Hamheung as a drug production factory in North Korea and demanded the abolition of the factory.

With exports to the outside closing, the great enterprise sold in North Korea

Currently in Shinuiju, philopon made in Hamheung is being sold for 9,000 to 10,000 dollars per kilogram. Drug dealers bring these into China and resell them at three times the higher price to Chinese drug dealers.

However, foreign sales of North Korean drugs is significantly decreasing as a whole.

In recent years, PSI and other international surveillance network have been strengthened regarding North Korea’s illegal actions, so drug exports have remarkably decreased. Further, North Korea-Japan relations have become worsened, so it seems to have exerted an influence on control of North Korean drug sales.

In Dandong, Chinese-North Korean businessman Kim Jong Man (pseudonym), who does trade with North Korea, said, “North Korea, before it ceased trade with Japan due to bad relations, sold a lot to Japan. It is a well-known fact that they were sold at high prices to Japanese yakuza via regular traders.”

However, with the worsening of relations, most avenues for drug sales have been closed. Also, the Chinese government, while proclaiming an all-out war with drugs recently, have significantly intensified control and inspections.

The Chinese government has shown a strong intention to control by broadcasting live via China’s CCTV the trial process of drug criminals through recent unconventional circumstances.

Mr. Kim said, “Due to the circumstances, the significant decrease in North Korean drugs going into China, compared to a year or two ago, can be felt.” Such an atmosphere is collectively acknowledged by other businessmen.

Inevitably, since routes for foreign sales have been closed, drug sales are increasing inside North Korea recently.

If such a trend continues, the day when North Korea will become one of the handfuls in the world known for its drug production and consumption does not seem too far off.