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Illicit Activity and Proliferation:
North Korean Smuggling Networks

Original Article By: Sheena Chestnut
International Security Summer 2007 vol 32 no 1
Major Topic: Politics
Minor Topic: Security


         There is nearly total agreement that North Korea's nuclear program is a security risk because of the possibility of nuclear transference. The Author seeks to answer two questions: (1) Is North Korea able to effect the transfer of nuclear material or technology to third parties? (2) Under what conditions would it do so?

         The author's thesis is “...although North Korean criminal smuggling has been centrally inspired and sanctioned, it is not always centrally controlled; the state has shifted over time from using solely state agents and assets to contracting out transportation and distribution of smuggled goods to criminal partners over whom it has less control. In short, the DPRK possesses both the means and the potential motivation to engage in nuclear smuggling, but it also risks losing control of its own proliferation activities.” (page 81)

         The case study of North Korea has revealed two facts central to the evolution of proliferation threats: (1) there has been a history of overlooking the efforts of state sponsored illicit smuggling networks and (2) there has been an expansion of criminal gangs into international smuggling.

         North Korea has been involved in widespread international smuggling, since 1976. Their organization has evolved from a state hierarchy to a decentralized disjoined network with ties to foreigners. The data show that North Korea began their illegal activities in 1976 and that in the mid 1990s they dramatically increased their illicit activities. Two reasons for the mid 1990s increase are suggested by the author: (1) The end of the cold war and the generous subsidies of the former Soviet Union and China coupled with natural disaster and famine made the North Korean regime desperate for money. (2) The death of Kim Il-Sung may have freed some within the regime to expand their operations.

         In 1975 North Korea defaulted on its international debts. This led to a need to replace the income. One way was to have their embassies become “self-financing.” Diplomats became drug traffickers using the international norms of diplomatic immunity to dodge apprehension and criminal action by the host country. In the 1980s trafficking expanded as the North's intelligence agencies entered the action using trading companies as fronts for illicit activities. In the 1990s trafficking shifted to the use of organized criminal gangs. Today it seems that North Korea is not only selling to criminal networks but also providing their own territory as a sanctuary for the manufacture of all kinds of counterfeit items. Currently, international criminal organizations appear to be the dominant distributors of contraband made in North Korea.

         The North Korean motivation seems to be financial; as a means to finance Kim Jong-il's power base. The author points out four observations from North Korea's history concerning its potential to proliferate nuclear weapons: (1) North Korea is acting as if it is in drastic need of money. (2) The author believes that only economic crisis or a weakened level of domestic support, not external military threats, may lead to a nuclear sale. (3) Ideology is used to justify the North Korean actions, however if their actions are actually impelled by ideology then the U.S. ought to worry more about proliferation. And (4) partnering with outside criminal concerns diminishes North Korea's control. How much? That is an open and worrisome question because of the problem of individuals engaging in freelance proliferation. This seems to be a worry for North Korea too as there seems to be some evidence that the North Korean state is trying to curb criminal activities outside of the state's control.

         To date the nuclear program seems to be run by the state and not by any criminal gang. However there seem also to be some links because North Korea has used some tools of criminal organizations to proliferate “tacit knowledge” and dual use components.

         The author believes that there are seven secondary factors that may influence proliferation decisions in North Korea.

         First, North Korea has not kept a consistent proliferation policy thereby making it easier to make a decision to expand proliferation.

         Second, concerning weapons of mass destruction, North Korea has not made any known attempt to sell any of its known chemical weapons. However, it is suspected in selling material to Libya and it is well known for selling missiles. Therefore North Korea has been able to show restraint when it wishes.

         Third, if North Korea has a surplus of fissile material it will be more likely to try to export some. Therefore closing any future ability to make more fissile material is an important U.S. policy goal.

         Fourth, the number of bombs possessed can determine the possibility of a sale. The closer the number of bombs to what the leadership believes is a safe deterrence, the less likely of a sale. Therefore good U.S. policy would be to limit the number of bombs that can be built.

         Fifth, the identity of a potential client is also a factor. States that show interest ought to be preferred to non-state agents due to security concerns.

         Sixth, the skill and adaptability of the illicit network may influence a decision to sell. A well run network will offer a better chance of not being caught and increase the possibility to decide to proliferate.

         Seventh, if the expected result of getting caught proliferating is anything less than the end of the North Korean regime, there is more chance of a possible sale.

         The U.S. has, since 2003, attempted to tighten the noose with anti-proliferation programs including interdiction, detection as well as financial measures. However there have been some counter productive financial measures in terms of the six party denuclearization talks. In order to prevent nuclear business ventures and make North Korea stop their criminal activities, it is necessary to keep open avenues to legal commerce while blocking unlawful means.

         The author believes that denuclearization talks should be considered more important than anti-proliferation programs for two reasons: (1) The six party talks are the only sure way to fully eliminate the proliferation threat. (2) Interdiction is never one hundred percent certain. However, due to the fact that denuclearization will take a long time, the U.S. should continue to challenge and apprehend any part of North Korea's smuggling network.

         North Korea has the wherewithal and the desire to proliferate. Additionally, criminals may have the means to proliferate even outside of state control. This is a complication and increased risk because they are not amateurs.

         The future looks more dangerous as criminal smuggler's operations spread to other nations.

Added on: 2009-04-27 02:34:11
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
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