Embassies and Elephants: North Korea’s Involvement in the IWT

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Main Image Credit REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

The North Korean government has a long history of involvement in illicit activities to generate foreign currency, which it uses to fund the regime elite and its weapons proliferation programmes, currently subject to UN sanctions. Most research into these illicit activities has focused on volume crimes such as drug smuggling, counterfeiting and, latterly, cybercrime. In comparison, North Korea’s involvement in aspects of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) has been recognised, but not accorded similar levels of scholarly attention. This paper reviews the evidence on the regime’s engagement in the IWT.

North Korea and the IWT are both notoriously difficult subjects for research, and in combination even more so. This paper’s findings cannot therefore be treated as comprehensive or definitive. However, a review of the available material indicates ongoing, if limited, official North Korean involvement in:

  • Diplomatic smuggling of ivory and rhino horn from Africa, which are probably mostly sold for a profit in China, with small amounts reaching North Korea.
  • Production of traditional Asian medicine (TAM) goods that claim the presence of endangered animal parts, such as tiger bone. These products have been sold to tourists from China or smuggled out of the country for wider retail.

Broader North Korean state practice suggests that most, if not all, the funds generated will go into state coffers. But the revenues are highly unlikely to be of the same magnitude as those generated by criminal enterprises such as drug smuggling and cybercrime.

North Korean IWT-linked activities should not be ignored: reporting suggests a persistent pattern of behaviour and, although severely constrained during the coronavirus pandemic, one that could increase again in the future.

Nonetheless, these activities represent a relatively small aspect of the challenge posed by the regime, as well as a small proportion of the IWT. Any recommendations therefore need to be proportionate, and to recognise the practical realities of implementation, including potential opposition on the UN Security Council (UNSC) from Russia and China.

This paper proposes the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: If politically feasible, the UNSC should restate the need for member states to implement existing resolutions on:

  • Diplomatic passenger luggage checks.
  • Information-sharing with the relevant UN Panel of Experts (PoE) tasked with monitoring North Korean sanctions implementation.
  • The repatriation of all North Korean nationals, except diplomatic staff and those on student visas.

Recommendation 2: The Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) should extend prohibitions against the export of traditional medicines made for domestic use to include the prevention of uncertified imports.

Recommendation 3: The World Customs Organization, Interpol and other international intergovernmental organisations with competence in the IWT interdiction should reduce barriers to operational intelligence collection of North Korean IWT activities and share relevant material with the PoE.

Recommendation 4: Regional intergovernmental bodies in Africa and Southeast Asia should use existing law enforcement information-sharing mechanisms to pool data on IWT smuggling cases related to North Korea and encourage national interdiction efforts and improved national reporting to the PoE.

Recommendation 5: Financial Action Task Force-style regional bodies in Africa and Southeast Asia should create typology reports and training packages on North Korean IWT activities and potential approaches to detection.


Matthew Redhead

Senior Associate Fellow; Financial crime consultant and researcher

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Sasha Erskine

Former Research Analyst

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