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Criminality Part of North Korea's Survival Strategy
Lack of legitimate ways to generate revenue only increases dependence on illicit activities
Leonid Petrov (Leonid7)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-25 04:05 (KST)   
It has been two years since the acquittal of the captain and three officers of a North Korean drug-running cargo ship, Pong Su, by the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia. After the three years of investigation and four months of trial, this decision caused a sensation that continues to cause debates about the DPRK government's involvement in illicit activities across the globe.

The dominating view that the North Korean state supports illicit activities on the international stage had been consistently expressed in the testimonies provided by one Australian (Adrian Buzo) and two United States-based (Balbina Hwang and Joe Bermudez) experts on North Korea. They and many other commentators had little doubt that DPRK top leadership was behind the incident.

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Nevertheless, the jury of seven women and six men finally decided to believe the captain, Song Man-sun, political officer Choi Dong-song, chief mate Ri Man-jin and chief engineer Ri Ju-chon and found them not guilty, releasing them from nearly three years of custody on March 6, 2006.

All the evidence collected and presented by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) during the investigation and trial were adverse to the North Koreans' case. One hundred and twenty-five kilograms of heroin, estimated to be worth about AUD$160 million, was brought ashore by the people from Pong Su Shipping Company on April 15, 2003, the birthday of North Korea's late-but-eternal president Kim Il-sung. The subsequent four-day chase of the Pong Su by the AFP, which ended in its dramatic apprehension by the Royal Australian Navy near Sydney, only fortified suspicions that the North Korean crew was aware of the illicit cargo.

Nevertheless, 27 sailors were freed after the first committal hearing one year later, but the captain and three other officers spent two more years in Melbourne before being cleared of all charges. What could compel the jury to disregard the material facts and opinion of experts and let the crew of the drug-trafficking ship go free?

The trial of the Pong Su crew lasted 119 days and evidence was heard from more than 100 witnesses. Remarkably, it coincided with a series of similar trials in Singapore and Indonesia, where Australian citizens were severely punished for drug trafficking. The courts sentenced to death three Australians and locked up the rest for 20 years, in some cases even when the possession of drugs was questionable. These Muslim nations obviously wanted to punish greedy and irresponsible culprits, as well as to send a strong message to potential offenders.

The Supreme Court of Victoria based its decision on the fundamental principle of law, the presumption of innocence. Despite the fact that heroin was brought to Australia on board the Pong Su, which clearly panicked at the appearance of the AFP and even tried to escape imminent boarding by the Australian Navy, all attempts to link the North Korean crew directly to the Southeast Asian drug-smuggling syndicate have failed. The crew repeatedly denied any knowledge about the illicit cargo.

On the other hand, all four members of the Malaysian drug syndicate that had hired the North Korean ship and its crew, supposedly to pick up $1 million worth of second-hand BMWs from Melbourne, pleaded guilty to the importation of illicit drugs. Did this clear the DPRK of suspicion of being involved in drug trafficking, currency counterfeiting and other criminal activities? The Supreme Court of Victoria's decision showed that the benefit of the doubt must be given to those who plead innocent, until proven otherwise.

In this context, the request made in March 2006 to the US government by the Russian ambassador to South Korea, Gleb Ivashentsov, to provide concrete evidence of the DPRK's alleged counterfeiting must have sounded like a new attempt to contest the widespread belief that North Korea is a criminal state. Despite the allegations made by the US officials that the Russian capital of Moscow was one of the places where North Koreans traded fake US dollars, the Russian ambassador said that his country had no substantial evidence to support these claims.

On many occasions, North Korean diplomats, sailors and businesspersons have been caught red-handed trafficking drugs, selling counterfeit US currency and smuggling prohibited goods. In May 2005, an attempt to systematize and analyze these incidents was undertaken at the Center for International Security and Cooperation of Stanford University. Sheena E. Chestnut, in her thesis, "The 'Sopranos State'? North Korean Involvement in Criminal Activity and Implications for International Security," came to the conclusion that the regime's pursuit of criminal activity "appears to be primarily for the purposes of financial survival." In other words, exhausted by decades of political and economic isolation (self- and foreign-imposed) and economic disasters (natural and man-made) the DPRK was forced to resort to criminal activities to survive.

Chestnut also claimed that in the North Korean context, where the state shows few signs of loosening control over its population, it is unlikely that individual officials and citizens would decide to pursue criminal activity for personal enrichment. The implication is that it is the DPRK leadership that controls this activity and sometimes gives organizations a certain degree of latitude in running criminal operations. In doing so, the state apparently pursues a deliberate policy of drug trafficking and counterfeiting, based on either ideological motivations or the need for financial survival.

The latter reason seems to be credible. The ongoing dispute between the US and the DPRK about its right to pursue its indigenous nuclear program left North Korea without electricity, fuel, expected industrial production and, ultimately, foreign exchange. In such circumstances, murky business with drugs, fake cigarettes, banknotes and Viagra promised badly needed respite for the budget.

Nevertheless, the degree to which the DPRK top leadership controls the special section of the Communist Party's Central Committee responsible for the generation of foreign exchange through legal and illegal imports (known as Bureau 39) and how much influence the bureau exerts in the rest of state apparatus remains questionable.

Equally, it can be a boss of the trading corporation in the capital or an organized criminal group in the province who ventures on a risky ploy. What becomes clear, though, is that ordinary North Koreans, who are getting caught while doing something illegal, have little understanding of the gravity of such an errand and virtually no power to avoid it.

Traditional loyalty to authorities and strict group subordination are the main principles cementing Korean society. The uncompromising struggle against ruthless colonial rule as carried out by the anti-Japanese guerrilla units in northern Manchuria in the 1930s left its own imprint on the DPRK's culture of "calculated adventurism."

The atmosphere of the unfinished Korean War (1950-1953) also continues to dominate the daily lives of North Koreans. The country remains a garrison-state, which knows no fear when confronted by a challenge. However, during and after the "silent famine" of the 1990s, a profound change took place.

There is a striking generational difference between the North Korean business people that is manifested in their attitudes. In the early 1990s, betrayed by their former communist allies -- the Soviet Union and China -- North Koreans realized that it is money that keeps the world moving, not ideology. Although this discovery soon led to pervasive corruption and a rise in criminality, it also opened many opportunities and effectively saved North Korea from a predicted collapse.

In 2003, one of the Pong Su Shipping Company's directors, Jeon Hak-beom, was making frequent trips to Australia to sort out the infamous incident. In his early 40s, unaccompanied and with a substantial amount of cash, Jeon is a typical representative of the new class of North Korean business technocrats. He is somewhat fluent in English, has liberal views, welcomes any business proposal and adores the Dear Leader. His favorite phrase, which equally shocks foreigners and his fellow citizens, is, "Forget about ideology, let's do business!"

That culture of indisputable loyalty to the Leader mixed with an avid wish to attract investment and earn profit for the national economy is now deeply embedded within the structure of the North Korean system. It can be easily misinterpreted and confused with ideological fanaticism and state-supported conspiracy, further damaging the image of North Korea.

In other words, despite all predictions of its close and imminent collapse, the DPRK is struggling to survive in the changing world. Globalization has opened many doors and opportunities to North Koreans. But as any newcomers, they suffer from lack of experience and are prone to mistakes.

Poor knowledge of basic economic principles and the rules of international trade often create serious problems in their business activity. Cutting them from the legitimate ways of generating revenue may well increase their dependence on illicit activities. So why not help North Korea to recover and become a "strong and powerful nation"?
Dr. Leonid A. Petrov is a research associate at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University. He works on the projects of "Historical Conflict and Reconciliation in East Asia" and "North-South Interfaces on the Korean Peninsula." The list of his publications is available on www.north-korea.narod.ru.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Leonid Petrov

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