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North’s officials caught with illegal rhino horns

June 04,2015
Rhinoceros horns [JoongAng Photo]
A North Korean diplomat was caught participating in the illegal trade of rhinoceros horns in Mozambique, according to a broadcast by Voice of America (VOA).

“The exposed individuals include Park Chol-jun, a diplomat working at the North Korean Embassy in South Africa, and Kim Jong-su, a North Korean taekwondo instructor residing in South Africa,” said an anonymous official working at the South Korean Embassy in South Africa who informed VOA. “Olandu Mudumani, a spokesman for the local Maputo police [in Mozambique], confirmed this was true.”

According to local police, Park and Kim were arrested on May 3, while moving 4.6 kilograms (10.1 pounds) of rhinoceros horns purchased from poachers on Mao Tse Tung Avenue in central Maputo, Mozambique.

Mozambique is the natural habitat of the wild rhinoceros, an endangered species often poached for its horns, which are prized ingredients in some traditional Asian medicines.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement between governments regarding the trade of endangered plant and animal species, forbids the trade of rhinoceros horns. Even in cases where a trade is authorized for the purpose of academic research, governments of all involved countries are required to present import and export permits at their entry and exit ports.

According to VOA, Park used his special diplomatic privileges to engage in illegal rhinoceros horn trade.

Diplomats are exempt from customs inspections when traveling across borders and diplomatic pouches cannot be examined without the consent of the diplomat in charge of the pouch. Diplomatic pouches used for carrying official dossiers are exempt from inspection.

The official from the South Korean Embassy in South Africa said that North Koreans in Mozambique frequently bought rhinoceros horns and passed them along to the North Korean Embassy in South Africa. The North Korean Embassy would then pack the rhino horns in diplomatic pouches and send them to China, where North Koreans would buy and sell them on the black market as medicine.

Rhinoceros horns sold as medicine on the black market go for $65,000 per kilogram, according to a report in March by National Geographic.

Using their diplomatic privileges to acquire foreign currency has become a recurring phenomenon among North Korea diplomats. In April a North Korean couple, both diplomats, were caught selling Chivas Regal and other liquors without a license on the streets in Pakistan, where Muslims are strictly forbidden from consuming alcohol.

Just a month before the incident, a North Korean diplomat was caught trying to smuggle 27 kilograms of gold into Bangladesh.

“With funds running dry thanks to sanctions by the United Nations, the United States and South Korea, North Korean authorities are pressuring North Koreans to meet their foreign currency quotas. It’s thought that they have also ordered diplomats to procure operating funds for their embassies themselves,” explained Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University in Changwon, South Gyeongsang. “Diplomats are committing these irregularities in an effort to save themselves.”

Orders for foreign currency come from Room 39, aka Bureau 39, Division 39 or Office 39, which is in charge of maintaining foreign currency slush funds for the ruling Kim family.

“Under the current reign of terror, diplomats on the frontline don’t have the option of not following orders from Room 39, which takes care of the governing funds of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” said Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at IBK Institute.

Nonetheless, other factors hint that a number of North Korean diplomats have acquired a taste for money and freely engage in illicit crimes.

“Capitalism is beginning to seep into North Korea, where a wealthy class has started to form,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Some diplomats who’ve laid their hands on foreign currency through orders from their superiors have begun to participate in business transactions more aggressively after learning how to generate profit through such transactions.”

BY CHUN SU-JIN [enational@joongang.co.kr]


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