UPDATE: According to the Boston Herald, the diplomats were sentenced to eight months in prison.
ORIGINAL POST: It is no secret that North Korean diplomats and embassies are self-financing. In fact, they are profit earning and they must remit funds back to Pyongyang. While this means that DPRK diplomatic relations are not a drain on the treasury, as is typically the case with other countries, it does mean that the DPRK’s official representatives are more likely to make headlines for their business dealings rather than political statements.
And so here is the latest installment in this saga from Reuters:
Swedish police have arrested two North Korean diplomats on suspicion of smuggling 230,000 cigarettes into the Nordic country, the Swedish Customs Office said Friday.
The pair, a man and a woman who have diplomatic status in Russia, were stopped by Swedish customs officers Wednesday morning as they drove off a ferry from Helsinki, the Finnish capital.
Customs officials discovered Russian cigarettes in the car driven by the couple, Swedish Customs spokeswoman Monica Magnusson told Reuters.
The two North Koreans claimed diplomatic immunity.
“They were accredited as diplomats in Russia, but had no accreditation in Sweden,” she said. “They were arrested on suspicion of smuggling.”
Magnusson added that the pair were still being held by Swedish police and that she was not aware of them having any contact with North Korean officials since their arrest.
Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it had been informed of the arrests but would not comment directly on the matter, saying it was a criminal case and was being handled by the police.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Cecilia Julin said foreign diplomats are only immune from criminal prosecution in countries where they have been accredited with the authorities.
“If you come to Sweden and commit a crime, you’re just like any other foreign national,” she said.
Sweden is one of only seven countries to have an embassy in North Korea, treated by much of the world as a rogue state due to human rights abuses and its possession of nuclear weapons despite opposition by the international community.
The Foreign Ministry said the arrests were primarily a police matter, but that the North Korean embassy in Sweden was in contact with the ministry over the matter.
An official at the North Korean embassy in Stockholm said earlier he had no knowledge of the arrests.
North Korean diplomatic staff were expelled from Sweden and two other countries in 1976 after a “massive” smuggling scheme was uncovered. According to Time Magazine (in 1976):
Not in years have so many diplomatic persona suddenly been declared non grata. In Oslo, members of North Korea’s diplomatic mission—three bureaucrats and a chauffeur—were given six days to pack up and get out. Foreign Ministry officials frostily informed North Korea’s Ambassador to Stockholm, Kil Jae Gyong, who is also accredited to Oslo, that he was no longer welcome in Norway. Similar scenes took place in Helsinki and Copenhagen, and as of last week, twelve North Korean embassy staffers had been unceremoniously ordered home to Pyongyang.
International politics had nothing to do with the abrupt action by the Scandinavian governments. What had happened was that North Koreans in all three countries* had been caught red-handed in a massive smuggling racket involving liquor, cigarettes and dope —apparently instigated by the financially hard-pressed government of President Kim II Sung. Officials in Norway estimated that their branch of the Kim gang had smuggled into the country at least 4,000 bottles of booze (mostly Polish vodka) and 140,000 cigarettes, which were then given surreptitiously to Norwegian wholesalers for distribution on the black market. In Denmark, the illegal goodies impounded so far included 400 bottles of liquor, 4.5 million cigarettes and 147 kilos of hashish, which police confiscated two weeks ago from two Danes who had just bought the drug from North Korean embassy staffers.
Personal Use. How long the North Koreans have been into smuggling as a sideline remains unclear, but Scandinavian officials have been closely watching their business dealings for about five months. In Norway, neighbors of the neat brick North Korean embassy in Oslo’s West End had long been puzzled by the constant movement of cars in and out of the compound and by the sight of mission staffers struggling in the backyard with huge mysterious boxes. In Denmark, customs officials got suspicious last month when the North Koreans imported 2.5 million duty-free cigarettes, allegedly for the “personal use” of one staffer.
The discovery of illegal activity by the North Koreans in Scandinavia may be only the iceberg’s tip. Five months ago in Cairo, Egyptian officials caught two North Korean diplomats with 400 kilos of hashish in their luggage. A North Korean official assigned to Malaysia has also been recalled after dealing in smuggled goods.
The North Koreans have protested their innocence, and mission staffers in Finland insisted that they would not leave the country. Nonetheless, Scandinavian officials have little doubt that the smuggling was ordered by Pyongyang as a desperate measure to help resolve the government’s horrendous financial crisis. Western experts estimate that North Korea, with a G.N.P. of only $4.5 billion, has a foreign debt of more than $2 billion, at least $500 million of which is owed to the capitalist world. North Korea not only maintains some 60 expensive missions abroad but also buys millions of dollars’ worth of advertising space in newspapers round the world every year to publicize the latest speeches of Kim II Sung. Faced with a severe shortage of hard Western currency, officials speculate, North Korean diplomats turned to smuggling to support their missions and pay for the ads, sending any excess profits home to Pyongyang.
2007 CRS report: Drug Trafficking and North Korea: Issues for U.S. Policy
You could probably write a series of books on the DPRK embassies in Russia and China.
And just for the record: Sweden–the North Koreans are not the only ones doing this–everyone is. When I lived in Europe over 15 years ago I talked with fellow teenagers about doing this! If you want to increase people’s incomes, increase tax receipts, and lower the incomes of mobsters and bootleggers–lower your cigarette taxes!
Read the full stories here:
Diplomats arrested for cigarette smuggling
SCANDINAVIA: Smuggling Diplomats