Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

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


Cambodia and DPRK emigration

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Sebastian Strangio points out a few interesting facts in the Asia Times about DPRK defection through Cambodia:

1. The Cambodian government has quietly worked to facilitate the processing of North Koreans as they move onto South Korea.

According to the US cables, the processing of North Korean arrivals is done in a quiet, ad hoc manner. In an October 2006 dispatch (06PHNOMPENH1927), Om Yentieng, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advisors, was quoted as saying that the processing of North Koreans in Cambodia was “the result of an understanding reached between the prime minister and the South Korean ambassador to Cambodia”.

Secrecy was clearly a priority for the South Koreans. In a July 2007 cable (07PHNOMPENH925) documenting a meeting between South Korean and US officials to discuss the fate of five North Korean refugees in Cambodia who were seeking resettlement in the US, the South Koreans were “preoccupied with conveying their desire that the ROK [Republic of Korea – South Korea] pipeline for North Korean refugees not be publicly revealed”. They also demanded it remain separate from Washington’s own North Korean “refugee processing pipeline”.

A dispatch from April 2008 (08PHNOMPENH316) expressed gratitude to Cambodian officials for “expeditiously processing” the exit permits of two North Korean individuals who departed for the US on April 16. American officials were also “impressed” at Cambodian immigration officials’ “discreet handling” of the cases of another group of North Koreans who departed the previous November.

“During the quiet November departure, no one at the airport noticed the North Koreans’ comings and goings,” it stated. (According to figures released by the Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security in May, the US resettled more than 100 North Korean refugees between 2006 and 2010 under legislation to help improve human rights conditions in the reclusive country.)

2. Cambodia is no longer a major hub in the underground railraod.  Thailand is now the prefered destination.

It appears, however, that Cambodia has since declined in importance as a conduit for North Korean defectors in favor of a route through Laos into northern Thailand. Pastor Chun Ki-won, head of the Seoul-based refugee aid group Durihana said that Cambodia – along with Mongolia – was one of the few Asian countries willing to aid North Koreans at the start of the 2000s when refugee flows were still relatively low.

Durihana has helped around 900 North Korean defectors reach South Korea over the years. Chun’s first aid mission, which he undertook in July 2001, involved the smuggling of a North Korean woman and her child from northeast China to Phnom Penh via Vietnam. Cambodia increased in importance after December 2001, Chun said, when he was arrested in a Chinese crackdown trying to smuggle a group of refugees across the Mongolian border.

Chun said that due to increased vigilance by Vietnamese authorities, most North Korean refugees now arrive in Southeast Asia via Laos and Thailand. The claim is mirrored in figures from the Thai Immigration Bureau which reveal a 50-fold increase in North Korean arrivals from Laos, from 46 in 2004 – around the time arrivals in Cambodia seem to have begun their decline – to 2,482 in 2010. 870 North Korean refugee arrivals have already been recorded between January and April of this year.

In a 2006 cable from the US consulate in Chiang Mai (06CHIANGMAI79), one official predicted that the increase in North Korean refugee arrivals – then still fairly contained – “may yet be the tip of the iceberg”. “[E]vidence suggests that the stream of refugees is unlikely to decrease, with a network of Christian missionary organizations in Thailand and southern China cooperating to bring in more refugees through Yunnan province, Burma [Myanmar], and Laos and into Thailand’s Chiang Rai province,” the cable stated.

Read the full story here:
All aboard North Korea’s refugee railroad
Asia Times
Sebastian Strangio


Migration to Thailand on rise

Friday, May 6th, 2011

According to the Bangkok Post:

Thai authorities have rejected South Korea’s proposal to build a coordination centre to deal with North Koreans illegally entering the country over concerns that it might encourage more inflows of migrants from the communist nation.

South Korea reportedly asked the government early this year to build the centre in Chiang Rai province, a popular entry point for illegal North Korean immigrants into Thailand.

Most of the immigrants have escaped economic hardship in North Korea and travelled to Thailand for temporary refuge in the hope of being able to resettle in third countries, usually South Korea, a source at the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) said.

From October last year until April this year, 899 North Koreans were arrested for illegal entry, said Isoc spokesman Maj Gen Dithaporn Sasamit. The source said South Korea had offered to pay to take care of the illegal migrants. However, the government had turned down the proposal because it had no policy to open a new refugee centre.

The South Korean government has played an important role in helping North Koreans by allowing them to resettle in its country.

Pol Maj Gen Phansak Kasemasanta, deputy chief of the Immigration Bureau, said that North Koreans illegally entering Thailand would be arrested.

After being tried in court, the immigrants would be detained at the Immigration Bureau while awaiting deportation.

The immigrants normally protest at being sent back to North Korea, allowing South Korean officials to step in and help, Pol Maj Gen Phansak said.

He added that instead of building a new centre for the North Korean migrants, South Korea could help improve the present detention centre at the Immigration Bureau.

North Koreans could stay there along with other illegal immigrants from other nations, he said.

According to the Isoc and the Immigration Bureau, North Koreans are normally helped by human trafficking gangs to travel to China.

They are then put on board Chinese cargo boats to Laos before boarding smaller boats or travelling on foot to Chiang Rai’s Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong districts.

“The trips are arranged by gangs made up of North Korean, Chinese and Thai nationals,” said Maj Gen Thawip Bunma, a senior Isoc official.

The Isoc and the Immigration Bureau have been tracking down people involved in the human trafficking gangs.

However, Pol Maj Gen Phansak said police still have no evidence to confirm that Thais were involved.North Korean migrants who have been arrested have told officials that they had to pay at least 100,000 baht to the gangs to help arrange their trips to Thailand.

Most of the migrants were willing to turn themselves in to Thai authorities, seeing it as the first step for them to travel on to the third countries they ultimately wish to settle in.

Read the full story here:
Illegal North Korean migrants on rise
Bangkok Post


The DPRK’s internet, business, and radio wars

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Martyn Williams releases three DPRK stories this week all covering interesting issues…

North Korea Moves Quietly onto the Internet

North Korea, one of the world’s few remaining information black holes, has taken the first step toward a fully fledged connection to the Internet. But a connection, if it comes, is unlikely to mean freedom of information for North Korea’s citizens.

In the past few months, a block of 1,024 Internet addresses, reserved for many years for North Korea but never touched, has been registered to a company with links to the government in Pyongyang.

The numeric IP addresses lie at the heart of communication on the Internet. Every computer connected to the network needs its own address so that data can be sent and received by the correct servers and computers. Without them, communication would fall apart.

It is unclear how the country’s secretive leadership plans to make use of the addresses. It seems likely they will be assigned for military or government use, but experts say it is impossible to know for sure.

North Korea’s move toward the Internet comes as it finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage. The recent sinking of a South Korean warship has been blamed on the insular country. As a result, there are calls for tougher sanctions that would isolate North Korea further.

“There is no place for the Internet in contemporary DPRK,” said Leonid A. Petrov, a lecturer in Korean studies at The University of Sydney, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “If the people of North Korea were to have open access to the World Wide Web, they would start learning the truth that has been concealed from them for the last six decades.”

“Unless Kim Jong-Il or his successors feel suicidal, the Internet, like any other free media, will never be allowed in North Korea,” he said.

The North Korean addresses were recently put under the control of Star Joint Venture, a Pyongyang-based company that is partly controlled by Thailand’s Loxley Pacific. The Thai company has experience working with North Korea on high-tech projects, having built North Korea’s first cellular telephone network, Sunnet, in 2002.

Loxley acknowledged that it is working on a project with Pyongyang, but Sahayod Chiradejsakulwong, a manager at the company, wouldn’t elaborate on plans for the addresses.

“This is a part of our business that we do no want to provide information about at the moment,” he said.

A connection to the Internet would represent a significant upgrade of the North’s place in cyberspace, but it’s starting from a very low base.

At present the country relies on servers in other countries to disseminate information. The Web site of the Korea Central News Agency, the North’s official mouthpiece, runs on a server in Japan, while Uriminzokkiri, the closest thing the country has to an official Web site, runs from a server in China.

North Korean citizens have access to a nationwide intranet system called Kwangmyong, which was established around 2000 by the Pyongyang-based Korea Computer Center. It connects universities, libraries, cybercafes and other institutions with Web sites and e-mail, but offers no links to the outside world.

Connections to the actual Internet are severely limited to the most elite members of society. Estimates suggest no more than a few thousand North Koreans have access to the Internet, via a cross-border hook-up to China Netcom. A second connection exists, via satellite to Germany, and is used by diplomats and companies.

For normal citizens of North Korea, the idea of an Internet hook-up is unimaginable, Petrov said.

Kim Jong-Il, the de-facto leader of the country, appears all too aware of the destructive power that freedom of information would have to his regime.

While boasting of his own prowess online at an inter-Korean summit meeting in 2007, he reportedly rejected an Internet connection to the Kaesong Industrial Park, the jointly run complex that sits just north of the border, and said that “many problems would arise if the Internet at the Kaesong Park is connected to other parts of North Korea.”

Kim himself has made no secret of the Internet access that he enjoys, and famously asked then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her e-mail address during a meeting in 2000.

The government’s total control over information extends even as far as requiring radios be fixed on domestic stations so foreign voices cannot be heard.

The policy shows no signs of changing, so any expansion of the Internet into North Korea would likely be used by the government, military or major corporations.

The World’s Most Unusual Outsourcing Destination

Think of North Korea, and repression, starvation and military provocation are probably the first things that come to mind. But beyond the geopolitical posturing, North Korea has also been quietly building up its IT industry.

Universities have been graduating computer engineers and scientists for several years, and companies have recently sprung up to pair the local talent with foreign needs, making the country perhaps the world’s most unusual place for IT outsourcing.

With a few exceptions, such as in India, outsourcing companies in developing nations tend to be small, with fewer than 100 employees, said Paul Tija, a Rotterdam-based consultant on offshoring and outsourcing. But North Korea already has several outsourcers with more then 1,000 employees.

“The government is putting an emphasis on building the IT industry,” he said. “The availability of staff is quite large.”

At present, the country’s outsourcers appear to be targeting several niche areas, including computer animation, data input and software design for mobile phones. U.S. government restrictions prevent American companies from working with North Korean companies, but most other nations don’t have such restrictions.

The path to IT modernization began in the 1990s but was cemented in the early 2000s when Kim Jong Il, the de-facto leader of the country, declared people who couldn’t use computers to be one of the three fools of the 21st century. (The others, he said, are smokers and those ignorant of music.)

But outsourcing in North Korea isn’t always easy.

Language can be a problem, and a lack of experience dealing with foreign companies can sometimes slow business dealings, said Tija. But the country has one big advantage.

“It is one of the most competitive places in the world. There are not many other countries where you can find the same level of knowledge for the price,” said Tija.

The outsourcer with the highest profile is probably Nosotek. The company, established in 2007, is also one of the few Western IT ventures in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

“I understood that the North Korean IT industry had good potential because of their skilled software engineers, but due to the lack of communication it was almost impossible to work with them productively from outside,” said Volker Eloesser, president of Nosotek. “So I took the next logical step and started a company here.”

Nosotek uses foreign expats as project managers to provide an interface between customers and local workers. In doing so it can deliver the level of communication and service its customers expect, Eloesser said.

On its Web site the company boasts access to the best programmers in Pyongyang.

“You find experts in all major programming languages, 3D software development, 3D modelling and design, various kind of server technologies, Linux, Windows and Mac,” he said.

Nosotek’s main work revolves around development of Flash games and games for mobile phones. It’s had some success and claims that one iPhone title made the Apple Store Germany’s top 10 for at least a week, though it wouldn’t say which one.

Several Nosotek-developed games are distributed by Germany’s Exonet Games, including one block-based game called “Bobby’s Blocks.”

“They did a great job with their latest games and the communication was always smooth,” said Marc Busse, manager of digital distribution at the Leipzig-based company. “There’s no doubt I would recommend Nosotek if someone wants to outsource their game development to them.”

Eloesser admits there are some challenges to doing business from North Korea.

“The normal engineer has no direct access to the Internet due to government restrictions. This is one of the main obstacles when doing IT business here,” he said. Development work that requires an Internet connection is transferred across the border to China.

But perhaps the biggest problem faced by North Korea’s nascent outsourcing industry is politics.

Sanctions imposed on the country by the United States make it all but impossible for American companies to trade with North Korea.

“I know several American companies that would love to start doing IT outsourcing in North Korea, but because of political reasons and trade embargoes they can’t,” Tija said.

Things aren’t so strict for companies based elsewhere, including those in the European Union, but the possible stigma of being linked to North Korea and its ruling regime is enough to make some companies think twice.

The North Korean government routinely practices arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill treatment of detainees, and allows no political opposition, free media or religious freedom, according to the most recent annual report from Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are kept in political prison camps, and the country carries out public executions, the organization said.

With this reputation some companies might shy away from doing business with the country, but Exonet Games didn’t have any such qualms, said Busse.

“It’s not like we worked with the government,” he said. “We just worked with great people who have nothing to do with the dictatorship.”

Radio Wars Between North and South Korea (YouTube Video)


Brazil, North Korea: Brothers in trade

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Bertil Lintner wrties in the Asia Times:

For more than a decade, the world around North Korea has been shrinking. In the wake of its missile and nuclear tests and recent accusations that it torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the list of internationally imposed sanctions and trade restrictions aimed at isolating the reclusive state has grown ever longer.

But the North Koreans, who have been in a state of war for more than half a century, have often found ingenious ways around those restrictions and added pressures from the United States, Japan and other countries, most visibly seen in the string of front companies and bank accounts it maintains across Asia.

Recent indications are that Pyongyang has sought willing trade partners outside of Asia and its new closest commercial ally appears to be Brazil. Relations between the two countries have warmed considerably since leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president in January 2003.

The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported in October 2004 that North Korea planned to open an embassy in Brasilia, its fourth in the Latin and South American region after Havana, Cuba, Lima, Peru and Mexico City. On May 23, 2006, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Brazilian media reported that the two countries had signed a trade agreement.

More recently, the KCNA reported last December that a “protocol on the amendment to the trade agreement” had been signed in the capital Pyongyang. “Present at the signing ceremony from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] side were Ri Ryong Nam, minister of foreign trade, and officials concerned and from the Brazilian side Arnaldo Carrilho, Brazilian ambassador to the DPRK, and embassy officials,” according to the news report.

China’s role in facilitating trade between Brazil and North Korea remains a matter of conjecture, but it is significant that the state mouthpiece Xinhua has eagerly reported on the warming of relations between the two countries. China remains Pyongyang’s most important base for all kinds of foreign trade – legitimate as well as more convoluted business transactions through front companies in Beijing and elsewhere.

But North Korea also needs more discreet trading partners, as China is often criticized in international forums for its close relations with the North Korean regime and is undoubtedly closely watched by Western intelligence agencies. And it is hardly surprising that Brazil, which is known to harbor its own nuclear ambitions, albeit for stated peaceful purposes, has emerged as such a friendly nation to Pyongyang.

Significantly, Brazil has established what appears to be an understanding with another aspiring nuclear power: Iran. “Also like Iran, Brazil has cloaked key aspects of its nuclear technology in secrecy while insisting the program is for peaceful purposes, claims nuclear weapons experts have debunked,” according to an April 20, 2006 Associated Press report.

While Brazil is more cooperative than Iran on international inspections, some worry its new enrichment capability – which eventually will create more fuel than is needed for its two nuclear plants [1] – suggests that South America’s biggest nation may be rethinking its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

”Brazil is following a path very similar to Iran, but Iran is getting all the attention,” said Marshall Eakin, a Brazil expert at Vanderbilt University in the United States. ”In effect, Brazil is benefiting from Iran’s problems.”

In September 2009, Lula declared before the United Nations General Assembly: “Iran is entitled to the same rights as any other country in its use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” He added to reporters outside the UN General Assembly, “I defend for Iran the same rights with respect to nuclear energy that I do for Brazil.” He added: “If anyone is ashamed of having relations with Iran, it’s not Brazil.”

But it is Lula’s budding cooperation with North Korea that is especially worrying to some Western observers. According to one longtime observer of the North Korean scene, “Both nations have long-standing ambitions to develop a nuclear capability as well as missiles and space-launched vehicles. Both have been the subject of intense US political pressure at times, Brazil on-and-off, North Korea all the time. And Brazil has access to technology that North Korea can only dream about.”

Because Brazil is not on any international sanctions list, it is easier for it to obtain dual-use materials. It remains to be proven, however, that Brazil has served as a conduit for such goods ultimately destined for North Korea.

According to official trade statistics, available at, North Korea’s largest trading partner in 2009 was China, with two-way commerce totaling US$2.67 billion. That was followed by South-North Korean trade worth $1.68 billion. A surprising third on the list was Brazil with US$221 million in two-way trade, well ahead of Singapore, Hong Kong and North Korea’s other traditional Asian trading partners.

The nominal figure may not be impressive in an international context, but it is substantial for North Korea, a country with an estimated total gross domestic product of about $22 billion. North Korea’s trade with Brazil has recently increased almost at the pace it has decreased with Thailand, from where it previously sourced dual-use chemicals, raw materials and machinery. Thailand no longer figures prominently in recent trade statistics, which is noteworthy given that their two-way trade reached a record US$331 million in 2004.

Those deals were done under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point even proposed signing a full-blown free-trade agreement with North Korea. In August 2005, the former Thai premier was formally invited by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, however, and when Thaksin was ousted in a September 2006 military coup, Thai-North Korean relations began to deteriorate. By 2008, bilateral trade between Thailand and North Korea fell to $76 million and in 2009 dipped further to $47.1 million.

Among North Korea’s more remarkable export items before the September 2006 coup in Thailand were 1.3 tons of gold and 10 tons of silver. Another pre-arranged shipment of 12 tons of silver arrived in Bangkok in October of that year. However, business is now reportedly sluggish at the two main trading companies that North Korea is known to maintain in Bangkok, Star Bravo and Kosun Export Import.

Successive Thai governments that have ruled the country since Thaksin’s overthrow are believed to have complied more strictly with international pressure to restrict dealings with North Korea. In Brazil, however, North Korea has a long history of involvement with various leftist groups, the distant offshoots of which are now in power in Brasilia.

North Korea expert Joseph S Bermudez wrote in his 1990 study “Terrorism: The North Korean Connection”:

From 1968 to 1971 the DPRK provided financial and military assistance to several leftist organizations in Brazil, most notably to Carlos Marighella’s National Liberating Action (Acao Libertadora Nacional – ALN) and the Revolutionary Popular Vanguard (Vanguarda Popular Revolucionaria – VPR). By November 1970, the DPRK established a training base in the Porto Alegre area, where a small number of guerrillas were given guerrilla warfare, small arms, and ideological training. A small number of ALN and VPR personnel is believed to have also received training within the DPRK.

Marighella – a Marxist, writer and founder of the ALN – was the leader of a militant movement that fought against Brazil’s US-supported, authoritarian right-wing governments in the 1960s. In September 1969, the guerrillas even managed to kidnap US ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick for 78 hours. After his release in exchange for 15 imprisoned leftists, Elbrick remarked, “Being an ambassador is not always a bed or roses.” Two months later, Marighella was killed in an encounter with Brazil’s police. But on November 4, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the death of Marighella, Lula declared him a “national hero”.

Although ideology may be less important than profits in today’s capitalist world, there are old emotional bonds between North Korea and Brazil under Lula that should not be entirely discounted. Brazil may be among the countries which have condemned North Korea’s nuclear program, as was shown when, in May 2009, the Brazilian government called on North Korea “to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to strictly observe the moratorium on nuclear tests”.

But bilateral trade between the two sides is nevertheless – in relative terms – now booming. In May last year, North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pak Ui-chun arrived in Brazil to meet with his Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim. Pak expressed Pyongyang’s interest in receiving assistance in its deep-water oil prospecting efforts from PETROBRAS (Brazilian Petroleum Corporation), while Amorim said his country was reportedly interested in exporting what he referred to as “farm” machinery.

So far no military hardware, or material that could have military applications, is known to have changed hands between North Korea and Brazil. But Pyongyang has found at least one new trading partner which could potentially replace some of its former business allies in Asia. It’s a budding relationship that will be closely monitored by North Korea watchers in Japan and the West.

Read the full story here:
Brazil, North Korea: Brothers in trade
Asia Times
Bertil Lintner
Asia Times


DPRK emigration data

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Josh points out this table from the UNHCR (originally published by RFA):


Click image for larger version.


Thai authorities halt shipment of DPRK-made weapons

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

UPDATE 13:  According to the Times of London, the weapons were headed for Hamas and Hezbollah:

An aircraft full of weapons seized in Bangkok last year was heading from North Korea to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Hamas, the Palestinian group, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said yesterday.

The Thai authorities said that the aircraft was carrying 35 tonnes of weapons, including rockets and rocket-propelled grenades. The Thai Government informed the UN that the haul had been bound for Iran, which is believed to ship weapons to its ally Syria, which distributes them to Hezbollah or Hamas.

North Korea had the “intention to smuggle these weapons to Hamas and to Hezbollah”, Mr Lieberman said in Japan, where he was on an official visit. “This co-operation between North Korea and Syria [does not] improve the economic situation in their countries,” he added.

UPDATE 12: Thailand to release pilots.  According to the AP (via the Washington Post):

Thai prosecutors dropped charges against the five-man crew of an aircraft accused of smuggling weapons from North Korea, saying Thursday the men would be deported to preserve good relations with their home countries.

The Attorney General’s Office said the decision was made after the governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan contacted the Thai Foreign Ministry and requested the crew’s release to face prosecution at home.

“To charge them in Thailand could effect the good relationship between the countries,” said Thanaphit Mollaphruek, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “We have decided to drop all the charges and deport them to their home countries.”

“To charge them in this case would not be a benefit to Thailand,” he added.

The crew – four Kazakhs and a Belarusian – were expected to be released later in the day, said their lawyer Somsak Saithong.

Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya indicated earlier this month the men would be released, telling reporters in Geneva the government had “suggested to the office of the attorney general to release them because the U.N. resolution does not oblige Thailand to … bring up charges on the pilots and the crew.”

Thursday’s decision was likely to spark international criticism. The weapons’ ultimate destination remains a mystery, though Thailand has said the plane’s final destination appears to have been Iran. Experts have also voiced concerns that authorities in the former Soviet republics have turned a blind eye to illicit activities of air freight companies that use Soviet-era planes to fly anything anywhere for a price.

A Thai government report to the U.N. Security Council, leaked to reporters in late January said the aircraft was bound for Tehran’s Mahrabad Airport.

But Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayarkorn said subsequently that “to say that the weapons are going to Iran, that might be inexact.”

“The report only says where the plane was going to according to its flight plan, but it doesn’t say where the weapons were going to,” he said. “It’s still under investigation, and the suspects are under our legal system.”

Investigations by The Associated Press in several countries showed the flight was facilitated by a web of holding companies and fake addresses from New Zealand to Barcelona designed to disguise the movement of the weapons.

Read previous posts on this topic below:


North Koreans headed to Thailand

Friday, January 1st, 2010

According to Voice of America:

Thai immigration authorities say they took more than 1,000 North Koreans into custody this year, compared with less than 400 in 2008 when Beijing tightened security for the Olympics.

Read the full article here:
Increasing Numbers of North Korean Refugees Head to Thailand
Voice of America


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 feeling some effects of global econ downturn

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

The global financial crisis/recession is affecting some of the DPRK’s most visible assets. 

The first example comes from the Kaesong Industrial Zone, where South Korean firms are obliged to pay North Korean workers’ wages in $US directly to the North Korean government.  Since the South Korean Won/$US exchange rate has risen significantly in recent months, companies in the Zone have seen their labor costs (denominated in $US) soar.  Since wages are fixed and firms are unable to lay off workers, some have responded by simply not paying wages—which does not affect the workers so much as it does the North Korean government’s finances, since it keeps most of the funds.

Quoting from Radio Free Asia:

Authorities in North Korea have warned South Korean companies in its Kaesong industrial area they must pay workers’ wages or face fines, as many investors begin to feel the effects of the economic downturn.

Lee Lim-dong, secretary general of the Committee of the Association of Enterprises Invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, said the issue of unpaid salaries was brought up late last year but had now become a formal demand.

“This time around, official notification was issued to all South Korean enterprises invested in Kaesong, through the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC),” Lee said.

South Korean businesses invested in Kaesong have already incurred serious losses due to the depreciation of the South Korean won against the U.S. dollar, according to Kim Kyu Chol, head of the Forum for Inter-Korean Relations, a Seoul-based group monitoring inter-Korean business relations.

“They already have to spend 30-45 percent more on labor [because of this],” he said, adding that the lives of South Korean entrepreneurs in the Kaesong economic zone would now be even more difficult.


According to Park Yong-man, director of Green Textile Co.—a South Korean company invested in Kaesong—“The official notification was sent to all South Korean companies in Kaesong on Feb. 10.”

Meanwhile, Kim said, one South Korean electroplating company had already failed to pay its North Korean workers for more than three months and had been suspended.

Seven South Korean companies in Kaesong are currently unable to pay their North Korean workers on time and will soon be in bigger trouble because of the new measures, Kim said.

South Korean companies operating in Kaesong are not allowed to recruit or dismiss North Korean staff directly, and North Korean authorities impose quotas of staffing numbers on them.

In early February, North Korean officials said that salaries of North Korean supervisors watching over the night shift at South Korean enterprises in Kaesong would have to increase by 200-300 percent, putting further pressure on labor costs.

And companies can be suspended from operations for failing to pay their employees for more than a month.

Kim said South Korean companies in Kaesong don’t need more supervisors or clerical workers, which the North Korean side has sought.

“They are already facing a managerial crisis, and a [demanded] 50 percent increase in the number of North Korean managerial staff is pushing it too hard,” he said, adding that South Korean enterprises would find this hard to accept.

Until recently, the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee (KIDMC), a joint North-South panel overseeing the complex, was responsible for half of the U.S. $10 a month transportation allowance given to North Korean workers in Kaesong.

North Korea demanded as of Jan. 1 that South Korea Kaesong companies must now pay the entire cost.

Now hard bargaining can pay off sometimes, especially for North Korea, but with all that has happened in the Zone recently it seems as if the DPRK actually wants these businesses to leave.  The DPRK’s negotiators are smart enough to know that the pie is shrinking and they naturally want to protect their share, but unfortunately they don’t yet seem to appreciate that their actions will have serious ramifications on future investment in the Zone once the global economy turns the corner.

Example No. 2: Unfortunately, recent economic conditions have also reduced the number of South Korean tourists venturing abroad where they might enjoy diversions such as eating in a North Korean-owned restaurant.

Quoting from Japan Probe:

Ever since a North Korean government restaurant opened in Bangkok two years ago, the Japanese press have been regularly visiting the place with hidden cameras to catch a glimpse of its dinnertime performances. However, it has now been discovered that the restaurant recently went out of business.

Most of its business had come from South Korean tourists, but the weakening of the won and the decline in tourism to Thailand due to the airport protests seem to have dealt a death blow to the restaurant. Attempts to contact North Korea-run restaurants in Cambodia and Vietnam failed, suggesting that those restaurants may have also gone under. It has also been said that a similar North Korean restaurant in China has suffered a big drop in business.

Read the RFA article here:
North Korea Warning Over Labor
Radio Free Asia
J.W. Noh