Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York released an indictment of five men for conspiring to smuggle North Korean methamphetamine to New York. The meth was of exceptionally high quality — between 96% and 99% pure, depending on the source — and in large amounts. An initial “dry run” transaction consisted of 30 kilograms, later seized by Thai and Filipino authorities. The next shipment would have weighed in at 100 kilograms, for which the dealers offered to pay $6 million, which is enough to buy a lot of baby formula (just kidding!).
The suspects were nationals of Britain, the Philippines, and, naturally, China. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the five suspects were all arrested in Thailand in September, and have since been extradited to the United States. That means that at least some of them are likely to reveal more about the plot in exchange for leniency in charging or sentencing.
Separately, a former U.S. Army soldier, Joseph Hunter, has been charged with leading the international drug trafficking ring that conspired to smuggle the dope, and for conspiring to whack a DEA agent. Once the drugs arrived in New York, they were to have been retailed through a biker gang, the Outlaw Motorcycle Club. We may learn more about this in the future; according to ABC News, “The investigation is ongoing and is expected to yield additional arrests in the coming weeks.”
North Korea has already reacted to the report in its customary fashion, claiming that it’s all a smear campaign. Still, the evidence there is to support the North Korean government’s involvement isn’t clear. Either the North’s control over its own infrastructure has eroded more than we realize, or the regime has gotten good at structuring drug deals to make them plausibly deniable. In recent years, we’ve seen less evidence of state-sponsored drug trafficking by North Korea, and more evidence that North Koreans whom the state taught to cook meth years ago have turned pro. North Korea itself is now flooded with meth. The other night, a young defector told me that smoking or snorting “bingdu” has become as common a social custom in the North as a toast over dinner (which must be at least a slight exaggeration).
There are a few pieces of evidence that suggest, but do not prove, that the government of North Korea itself manufactured and exported this meth.
The first, of course, is its prior history of state-sponsored drug dealing, although, as mentioned, the evidence for this has trailed off in recent years.
The second is the volume of the drug. The sales listed in the indictment totaled 130 kilograms, and the indictment says that one of the suppliers, “Reyes,” has stockpiled a ton of meth in “Country 2,” identified here as the Philippines. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could manufacture that volume of an illegal substance without the cooperation, at the very least, of the government. The same can be said of the drug’s purity.
For about a year, I prosecuted meth cases in what was then America’s meth capital, San Bernardino County, California. For a while, I even had my own informal network of informants. I made friends with the cops in Barstow, who told me all about how meth is made, and showed me their albums of photos of meth labs hidden behind fake walls and inside semi trailers parked in the desert. Cooking meth requires the maker to obtain large amounts of precursor chemicals, which would be especially hard to obtain in commercial amounts in North Korea. The odors associated with even small-scale meth production are overpowering and easily detectable. Cops often find meth labs just by the smell (“like a dirty cat box,” as the cops described it). Then, there’s the risk and danger of working with toxic and explosive chemicals. In other words, it would have been very difficult to manufacture large volumes of high-quality meth in North Korea without the cooperation of the government, although I can’t say it would have been impossible.
As a prosecutor, I became convinced that meth is as addictive and dangerous as cocaine. It makes the user manic, paranoid, violent, and prone to extremely dangerous behavior. Two soldiers I prosecuted for meth stole their roommates’ cars and crashed them at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour. The physical effects of the drug, and of the other toxic chemicals it often contains, soon become visible on the faces of meth users.
The indictment, which you can download here, offers a few other clues, none of them conclusive. It repeatedly says that the meth was “from North Korea” or “North Korean,” but does not say anything about the affiliation of the original supplier or the method of delivery. (You may suspect political motives, and there may be some, but smart prosecutors never allege unnecessary facts in their indictments. The more they allege, the more they have to prove.) This is the most intriguing clue:
Let’s assume, for now, that Ye Tiong Tan Lim isn’t just making this all up. If I’m reading this right, the regime destroyed its more visible production facilities and moved its operations into less visible ones, to fool our satellite imagery analysts. The statement implies that the regime was the wholesaler, but the statement doesn’t rule out the possibility that private dope dealers or rogue officials were the manufacturers.
The language implies that North Korea was up to some sort of provocation, probably a missile or nuke test, and that this was creating unwanted attention. But why would that be a problem for a hidden meth lab? Surely U.S. satellites would not be watching meth labs in North Korea. What occurred to me later, however, was that they might be watching North Korean shipping traffic in harbors like Nampo, Hungnam, or Chongjin, which carry plenty of things that have national security interest.
Another compelling clue may be the fact that one of the co-conspirators had stockpiled a ton of the meth in the Philippines, from where it would have been sent to Thailand, and then shipped to the United States by boat. There are no direct flights between North Korea and the Philippines. One possibility is that North Korean drug gangs smuggled the meth to China, and that Chinese gangsters then shipped it to the Philippines. Without a trans-shipment point in between, the drugs would have had to go to from North Korea to the Philippines by ship. The officers and crews of North Korean ships are carefully selected for their loyalty. Note, for example, that the captain of the MiG-smuggling ship intercepted in Panama tried to kill himself when his ship was boarded. It’s unlikely that rogue smugglers in North Korea could have arranged for the use of a ship. In the Pong Su case, North Korean drug smugglers used a freighter to drop their high-quality heroin along a remote stretch of Australian coastline, where it was moved to shore in small, inflatable boats. The use of a drop ship would be consistent with North Korea’s past M.O.
After all this point-by-point speculation, the involvement of the North Korean government won’t remain a mystery to those with access to the financial forensics. The payments for the drugs would have left a trail that will end up in a bank account somewhere. Once the feds know how the money moved — which seems likely, given the extradition of the five suspects — they’ll be able to figure out whether the persons receiving payment for the drugs were connected to the regime. Such conclusions aren’t often revealed to members of the public in detail, but a careful examination of witness testimonies before Congress should give clues to what administration insiders believe.
And who knows where else that part of the investigation could lead. After all, Banco Delta Asia began as a crackdown on the laundering of counterfeit currency.