Shady busi­ness at em­bassies a prob­lem if peace breaks out with North Korea

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAYLOR

It’s known as the “Her­mit King­dom,” the world’s most iso­lated coun­try, run by a crazed, to­tal­i­tar­ian dy­nasty.

But North Korea main­tains em­bassies in nearly 50 na­tions — in­clud­ing Al­ge­ria and Zim­babwe — and could emerge swiftly as a nor­mal­ized global power if nu­clear talks with South Korea and the United States play out the right way. And that’s a prob­lem.

The North’s em­bassies have long been used not for tra­di­tional diplo­macy but for il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing black­mail, cy­ber­crime and drug traf­fick­ing. U.S. an­a­lysts warn that it’s a pipe dream to think they can be trans­formed quickly into above­board, tra­di­tional diplo­matic out­posts.

With a sec­ond sum­mit be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ap­pear­ing likely, ob­servers are sharply di­vided over whether Py­ongyang could rein­vent it­self on the world stage if Mr. Kim gives up his nu­clear weapons in ex­change for an end to U.S.-led eco­nomic sanc­tions and in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion as a sov­er­eign state.

“The idea that a re­duc­tion of sanc­tions will sud­denly in­spire the regime to use its net­work of diplo­matic posts to en­gage in le­git­i­mate ac­tiv­i­ties is just a false premise,” said David Maxwell, a re­tired Army Spe­cial Forces colonel and a North Korea an­a­lyst at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

Although much of the U.S. for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment shares Mr. Maxwell’s skep­ti­cism, some ar­gue that the mo­ment is ripe for out­side-the-box think­ing on North Korea — par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to Py­ongyang’s links to the rest of the world.

“Pol­i­cy­mak­ers from Congress to the ex­ec­u­tive in Washington, as well as peo­ple in the Amer­i­can think tank com­mu­nity, have op­er­ated for years un­der the as­sump­tion that North Korea was to­tally iso­lated and that the North Korean gov­ern­ment’s col­lapse was im­mi­nent,” said Keith Luse of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on North Korea, a non­govern­men­tal group that has ad­vo­cated for diplo­macy with Py­ongyang since 2004.

“This kind of think­ing has caused re­peated U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions to punt the task of de­vel­op­ing any real, com­pre­hen­sive, long-term pol­icy for deal­ing with the North Korean gov­ern­ment,” said Mr. Luse, who was a long­time East Asia pol­icy ad­viser to Richard G. Lugar, an In­di­ana Repub­li­can and for­mer chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

As Mr. Trump’s push for a break­through with Mr. Kim mounted this year, Mr. Luse’s team at the Na­tional Com­mit­tee on North Korea was track­ing how the regime has man­aged for years to pre­serve in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions even as Washington and the United Na­tions sought to iso­late Py­ongyang with sanc­tions.

“By our count, North Korea has 47 em­bassies world­wide, as well as a hand­ful of con­sulates [and] trade mis­sions,” Mr. Luse told The Washington Times.

Although re­la­tions may be strained in many coun­tries, he said, the “diplo­matic foot­print could ex­pand quickly if the cur­rent nu­clear talks suc­ceed.”

“There are in­di­ca­tions that Kim Jong-un un­der­stands this, and that it fac­tors into his cal­cu­lus,” said Mr. Luse. “While the big un­cer­tainty re­mains over the ex­tent to which he will truly be will­ing to ver­i­fi­ably aban­don his nu­clear weapons and pro­grams in ex­change for sanc­tions re­lief, there’s lit­tle ques­tion Mr. Kim wants his legacy to be that of a leader who grew North Korea’s con­nec­tiv­ity to the world, es­pe­cially eco­nom­i­cally.”

North Korea’s eco­nomic emer­gence, he said, will de­pend heav­ily on help from the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund and the World Bank, “as well as to es­tab­lish nor­mal trade re­la­tions with much of the world.”

Putting the IMF and World Bank in the same sen­tence as North Korea might sound like blas­phemy, but Mr. Luse is not alone. Oth­ers agree that any­thing is pos­si­ble if Mr. Kim is se­ri­ous about aban­don­ing his nu­clear pro­grams.

“To me, it doesn’t mat­ter whether North Korea has 10 or 20 or more em­bassies,” said Frank Aum, an Obama-era Pen­tagon ad­viser on North Korea who now is with the U.S. In­sti­tute of Peace. “If North Korea de­cides to de­nu­cle­arize, then the story can change very quickly. Once they have an im­proved re­la­tion­ship with the U.S. and a re­lief from eco­nomic sanc­tions, it’s a game-changer. It changes ev­ery­thing.” Or does it? Mr. Maxwell said North Korea’s web of sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­i­ties en­abled through its em­bassies around the world are “just too valu­able” for the Kim regime. “Hun­dreds of mil­lions, if not bil­lions, of dol­lars in il­lic­itly raised fi­nances are cur­rently be­ing drawn in through these em­bassies, where North Korean of­fi­cials use their diplo­matic sta­tus as cover for il­licit ac­tion,” he said.

‘Il­licit op­er­a­tions’

The Kim regime’s em­bassy ac­tiv­i­ties are run through the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee Bureau 39, known in U.S. in­tel­li­gence cir­cles sim­ply as “Of­fice Num­ber 39.”

Amer­i­can sources say the se­cre­tive bureau is es­ti­mated to bring in at least $500 mil­lion a year from ac­tiv­i­ties such as coun­ter­feit­ing and dis­tribut­ing $100 bills, drug traf­fick­ing, and man­u­fac­tur­ing and mov­ing fake high-end phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals such as Vi­a­gra.

One of the more well-doc­u­mented schemes in­volved the ex­port of North Korean la­bor­ers to make money for Mr. Kim’s rul­ing Work­ers’ Party. North Korean de­fec­tors have re­vealed how Py­ongyang cuts deals with other na­tions to host the work­ers, whose over­seas salaries are claimed by the regime’s diplo­mats posted in those na­tions. The scheme is be­lieved to have fed the regime’s cof­fers for years.

Greg Scar­la­toiu, who heads the Washington-based Com­mit­tee for Hu­man Rights in North Korea, told Congress in 2015 that more than 50,000 North Korean la­bor­ers were work­ing in 16 na­tions, “earn­ing the Kim regime be­tween $150 mil­lion and $230 mil­lion per year.”

Some 40,000 of the la­bor­ers are re­ported to be in Rus­sia and China, both of which border North Korea, but Mr. Scar­la­toiu told law­mak­ers that as many as 7,800 were scat­tered in Mid­dle East na­tions such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emi­rates and Qatar and thou­sands more were work­ing in nearly a dozen other na­tions, in­clud­ing An­gola, Nige­ria, Poland and Myan­mar.

The over­seas worker pro­gram is only the tip of the ice­berg, ac­cord­ing more cur­rent data com­piled by for­mer De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency of­fi­cer Bruce Bech­tol, who said a wider range of pro­grams — in­clud­ing drug-smug­gling through diplo­mats — have been tied to Of­fice Num­ber 39.

“One of the key re­sources that North Korea uses to dis­trib­ute its il­le­gal drugs is its diplo­matic corps,” Mr. Bech­tol wrote in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished this year in Cor­nell Law School’s In­ter­na­tional Law Jour­nal.

“As diplo­mats work within North Korea’s il­licit sys­tem, they nat­u­rally come un­der the con­trol of Of­fice Num­ber 39,” he wrote, adding that “South Korean gov­ern­men­tal sources es­ti­mate North Korea’s an­nual il­le­gal drug sales to over­seas amount up to $200 mil­lion.”

“While North Korea has, over the years, made drug sales based on tra­di­tional opium-based drugs (largely heroin), the big­gest mon­ey­maker and the largest sales item for sev­eral years is now metham­phetamines, some­times known as ‘Ice,’” Mr. Bech­tol wrote. “North Korean op­er­a­tives are now known to be deal­ing with drug dis­tri­bu­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions in South­east Asia in­clud­ing Thai­land … [and] op­er­ate on a large scale in China.”

Lo­cal hosts have com­plained that the North Korean em­bassies are en­gaged in il­licit rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. In Europe, gov­ern­ments say Py­ongyang is il­le­gally sub­let­ting parts of its em­bassy com­plex to lo­cal busi­nesses, the BBC re­ported last year. In Is­lam­abad, Pak­istan, thieves broke into the res­i­dence of a North Korean diplo­mat to tar­get a large hoard of beer, wine and other il­le­gal al­co­hol prod­ucts that could fetch high prices on the lo­cal black mar­ket.

There are in­di­ca­tions that North Korean diplo­mats have on oc­ca­sion eyed the much greater pay­out that might come from geopo­lit­i­cal black­mail.

In 1999, a top North Korean diplo­mat al­legedly told Is­raeli of­fi­cials that Py­ongyang would halt its mis­sile tech­nol­ogy sales to Iran and other en­e­mies of Is­rael if the Jewish state handed over $1 bil­lion in cash. A July ar­ti­cle in The Wall Street Jour­nal high­lighted the in­ci­dent and how the Is­raelis ul­ti­mately re­fused. In the years since, the ar­ti­cle said, North Korea sup­plied con­ven­tional and bal­lis­tic weapons and nu­clear tech­nol­ogy to coun­tries such as Iran and Syria.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Leader Kim Jong-un and North Korea main­tain em­bassies in nearly 50 na­tions.

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