UN investigating claims of rampant North Korean wildlife trafficking in Africa

Mar 27, 2024 | News

By Ifang Bremer, NK News

DPRK officials allegedly smuggled tens of millions in rhino horns and elephant tusks via Mozambique and other countries

The U.N. Panel of Experts overseeing DPRK sanctions is investigating allegations that North Korean officials engaged in multiple wildlife trafficking schemes in Africa between 2022 and 2023, according to its latest report.

The first case involves a North Korean diplomat in South Africa named Yun Kil and was first reported by the website Pyongyang Papers, an anonymous blog that publishes allegations of North Korean sanctions violations.

Pyongyang Papers alleged in March 2022 that Yun attempted to traffic $65 million worth of rhinoceros horns the same year, looking to sell the horns to a Chinese company via a Mozambique broker.

Matthew Redhead, a financial crime researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) who has researched North Korean wildlife trafficking, told NK News that $65 million worth of rhino horns suggests North Korea might be upscaling its illegal wildlife trade.

“That sounds like a heck of a lot of horn, and certainly not an amount that would be susceptible to transport in the diplomatic bag or personal luggage, unless it was being smuggled out in small amounts,” he said. “This makes me wonder whether what we’re seeing here is an effort to ‘industrialize’ their smuggling efforts, using channels more typically used for their sanctions evasion efforts.”

The panel is also looking into a case raised by a local Botswana news outlet about a DPRK-led ivory smuggling plot spanning four African countries.

According to Weekend Post, a North Korean intelligence official named Yi Kang Dae financed an operation to illegally transport rhino horns and elephant tusks from Botswana on two separate occasions, in Nov. 2022 and Feb. 2023.

After leaving Botswana, the illegal goods were allegedly smuggled into South Africa and Zimbabwe before arriving in Mozambique, from where they were subsequently shipped to an undisclosed third country.

The outlet reported the North Korean smugglers acted on behalf of Han Tae Song, the DPRK’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva.

Japanese media reported in December that Han was set to return to Pyongyang after Swiss authorities and the Panel of Experts investigated his alleged involvement in wildlife trafficking. Han was reportedly previously expelled from Zimbabwe in 1992 for engaging in rhino horn trafficking.

Reports of North Korean involvement in illegal wildlife trade have surfaced for decades. Experts say DPRK diplomats based in southern African countries have used the ivory trade as a means to gain illegal revenues for the government, or to maintain their own missions in the absence of Pyongyang funds.

Redhead of RUSI told NK News that “most of the sourcing of illegally traded animals by North Korea has taken place historically in sub-Saharan African countries.”

“Given many of these countries’ historic links with North Korea, gratitude for past support, and a more permissive view about the international wildlife trade, there has been a tendency for some local officials to turn a blind eye to North Korean activities,” he said. “Local governments will eventually complain about the most egregious examples of bad North Korean behavior, but they haven’t made a systematic effort to stop it — so far.”

According to Redhead, illegal wildlife trade “is an easy way for North Korea to make money at relatively low risk, and it has plenty of experienced operatives in the field.”

“But of course, with the North Korean diplomatic presence declining, that channel is going to become more difficult to use, and I suspect we will see North Koreans operating undercover as third-party nationals (for example as Chinese and Vietnamese) playing a greater role in sourcing and transporting these items.”

North Korea has closed nine of its overseas missions since. Six of the recently closed embassies were in African countries, underlining an effort to reduce its diplomatic activity in the region by shuttering or consolidating missions.

Historically, Pyongyang’s foreign missions have been a means for the DPRK to illicitly gain foreign currency by abusing diplomatic immunity, ranging from selling ivory to dealing in Cuban cigars.


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