Search results for methamphetamine

Was Kim Jong Un behind the plot to smuggle meth into New York?

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:

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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.

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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.

Open Sources, Jan. 17, 2012

NORTH KOREA PERESTROIKA WATCH:  First it was lipstick, now it’s bicycles.  Where are Christine Ahn and Christine Hong to defend North Korean women against sexism?

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I’VE HAD A LOT TO SAY ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S METH PROBLEM, but this article on North Koreans smoking pot was interesting.  You wouldn’t think pot would catch on in a place without freely available snacks, and where being mellow is strictly forbidden.

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SOME TEA-LEAF-READERS made a really big deal out of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, and some language in it that they interpreted as conciliatory.  I found those interpretations to be rather strained, and I wonder what they have to say about this exceptionally long and hostile KNCA missive about the U.N. Command, “south Korea,” and alleged Yankee imperialist plans to dominate Asia.  It ends with a definitive statement that North Korea will never give up its “deterrence against all forms of war,” which tea-leaf-readers usually interpret to mean nuclear weapons programs.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA SIGNS BILL to help North Korean kids.  The bill, as you recall, drew fierce opposition from Christine Ahn’s comrades in the struggle, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Christine Hong, the latter writing just about the most rambling, disingenuous, and poorly sourced thing 38 North has ever stooped to publish.  (I wove my response into my review of “Escape from North Korea.”)  Congratulations to Young Kim of Rep. Ed Royce’s staff for spearheading this, and to Rep. Royce for showing, so early in his tenure as Chairman of House Foreign Affairs, what an effective champion he could yet become.

Reuters offers this must-read profile of Royce, who certainly didn’t strike me as especially low key in the February 2007 hearing where Chris Hill did his Joe Isuzu act to sell Agreed Framework II to a skeptical House Foreign Affairs Committee.  According to the Reuters piece, Royce intends to make Iran sanctions his number one priority, but in this blog post, Royce appears to advocate the same approach to North Korea.

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NEW NORTH KOREAN SLOGAN:  ”Let us live not merely for today but for tomorrow!”  But doesn’t that imply that North Korea is less than an earthly paradise today?  In America, we have Grass Roots who tell you to live for today.  In North Korea, grass roots are something you eat while you’re living for a tomorrow you may not have.

North Korea’s Medicinal Methampetamine

Open News reports that North Korea has launched another crackdown on drugs:

A source in Hyaesan, Yanggand Province reported on the 11th, January that “Kim Jong-eun has ordered the army and security forces to combine and form a task force dedicated to cracking down on the abuse of drugs in North Korea in the years “first battle. The new body began its activities on the fifth of the month.”

I think they meant to say “Yaggang,” aka “Ryanggang.”

Referring to the policy as a “battle” indicates that all efforts will be mobilized in its undertaking. Such a battle against drugs in the North indicates that the situation has reached the point where the regime sees the problem as a threat to its existence. “Drug abuse is spreading amongst the youth and the establishment of this drug combatting force is Kim Jong-eun’s prescription to medicate worsening public opinion,” added the source. “It’s nothing less than a declaration of a war on drugs.”

“Up until now any drug criminality and abuse has been dealt with by the Ministry of Public Security (the equivalent of South Korea’s police force). Significantly, the Security Department (the equivalent of the South’s National Intelligence Service) will now take the lead in concert with the military. The security apparatus taking a leading role in managing the drug problem is a clear indication that the problem is now perceived as a systemic issue,” the source went on. “There are periodic crackdowns on drugs in the North but this is the first time the State Security Department has been mobilized.”

I assume most readers of this blog have heard that North Korea was once a major exporter of illicit drugs, especially methamphetamine and heroin. Recently, however, the North Korean state’s dope industry appears to have collapsed along with the rest of its industries. North Korean diplomats are still getting caught smuggling dope on occasion, but most of the available evidence suggests that North Korea’s illicit drug exports have dropped off sharply. This may be a function, in part, of Japan cutting off most trade with North Korea, which probably also cut off some lucrative smuggling routes. In any event, there were still plenty of North Koreans who had the knowledge, the connections, and the economic desperation to go into the dope business on their own. The collapse of North Korea’s medical care system (Margaret Chan’s views notwithstanding) gave them a domestic market. North Koreans who couldn’t get simple cold remedies and pain killers turned to meth and heroin instead. And so one day, South Korea will have to reunify with a broken nation whose myriad public safety and health problems may include tens of thousands of drug dealers, smugglers, addicts. Open News adds:

Drug abuse in North Korea has been on the increase. According to North Korea Ministry of Health data confirmed by an Open Radio correspondent, more than 200,000 North Koreans had used Philopon more than once as of December 2008. The numbers of those who had used opium in the treatment of some sort of illness had reached 500,000. However, taking into account those not included in the Department of Health’s figures the number of North Koreans using Philopon or opium could be higher.

I’m suspicious of the origin of those statistics, but they sound plausible. And they’re staggering for a nation of 23 million or so, especially for such a tightly controlled society.

You can read more about North Korea’s drug problem here.

At Last, Plan B

This afternoon, the Treasury Department finally announced its long anticipated sanctions against North Korea, in the form of a sweeping new executive order. The order, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, authorizes the blocking of assets of “any person” providing what Treasury calls “material support” for North Korea’s WMD proliferation, money laundering, counterfeiting, trade in luxury goods, bulk cash smuggling, and pretty much everything North Korea does that violates UNSCR 1718 or 1874, or the U.S. Criminal Code.

In addition to the new order, Treasury also imposed new sanctions against several North Korean entities under the existing Executive Order 13382. Below the fold, I’ve pasted the text of the Executive Order, President Obama’s letter forwarding the EO to the Speaker of the House, two Treasury press releases, and some remarks by OFK favorite Stuart Levey, all of which I’ve archived here to aid your research and mine.

My initial reaction is that the new EO gets it just right. It’s narrowly targeted at North Korea’s illicit activities, but it’s also broad enough to cover the main ones — arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, currency and pharmaceutical counterfeiting, and the squandering of its resources on luxury goods while North Korean children starve in the streets. This is a tough-yet-refined version of the Plan B I’ve been advocating since its earliest draft in 2006.

Here is the key language:

All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, including any overseas branch, of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

(i) the persons listed in the Annex to this order; and

(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

The EO then goes on to describe a wide range of activities, assistance, and financial activities that could support North Korea’s illicit activities, including the assets of any entity held by a U.S. person, or within U.S. jurisdiction. This means that if a Chinese entity is involved in helping a blacklisted North Korean entity acquire missile components, Treasury could freeze the Chinese entity’s tainted assets based in the U.S., assets of its U.S. subsidiaries, its assets in U.S. banks, or potentially, the entity’s foreign bank’s correspondent accounts in U.S. banks. This is all we could ask, and — if applied vigorously — it will be enough to force international businesses to choose between the use of the global financial system and their business ties with North Korea. Yes, North Korea could try to conceal, blur, obfuscate, and obscure which companies are connected to its illicit activities, but Treasury’s answer to this is that its effect will be to spread suspicion to all North Korean entities, even those that claim to be legit. This could be a severe blow to North Korea’s ability to comingle illicit and legitimate finance (the essence of money laundering) and will terrify investors and cause capital flight from the Palace Economy just as the Kim Dynasty is trying to engineer a smooth succession.

For Senator Sam Brownback, it is also a rightful claim to an important legacy when he leaves the Senate to become, almost assuredly, the next Governor of Kansas. In recent months, as North Korea’s behavior changed thinking in the Obama Administration, Brownback effectively lobbied State for tougher economic sanctions, and skillfully parlayed the stayed threat of nomination holds to build friendships with State Department officials with whom he found common ground. In the absence of strong conservative thinkers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brownback filled the void, seized the opportunity to build relationships in the Treasury Department, and encouraged it to press for tougher enforcement. The question now turns to the Administration’s determination to use this tool aggressively, and follow the money to the very ash heap of the Kim Dynasty if necessary.

Who is targeted? A lot of entities that were already on Treasury’s list of specially designated nationals, but also, two key additions: Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, and the notorious Reconnaissance Bureau, the prime suspect in the recent attempt to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop. Also sanctioned was a North Korean state enterprise responsible for making and exporting submarines and torpedoes.

For the moment, senior State Department people like Robert Einhorn seem determined to use financial pressure to force a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior, and talk of re-engaging with North Korea all seems very theoretical and conditional. I don’t think anything short of a coup will actually cause that fundamental change, and the real test will come when State and the Administration come to grips with this. For now, this is all we could have hoped for from this Administration.

Read more

WHO Knew? North Korea’s health care system is nothing to envy.

north-korea-poster-560.jpgSo, aside from stultifying political repression, famine, forced labor, criticism sessions, neighborhood spies, propaganda speakers in every home, prison camps for dissenters, and the occasional public execution, what has Kim Jong Il ever done for us? Ask any Chomsky-parroting career grad student in the East Bay and she’ll say, “universal health care!”

Alas, those neocons at Amnesty International have come to crush their tiny, misshapen hippie souls with this extensive report:

The North Korean government has failed to adequately address the country’s ongoing food shortages since the 1990s. This failure has led to the current critical situation in which the population faces severe health problems associated with malnutrition. Compounding these problems, North Korea’s government has failed to provide adequate resources for its health care system, which as a result is wholly unable to cope with the growing number of illnesses and diseases of a population weakened by hunger.

According to the WHO, North Korea spent less than US $1 per person in 2006.

You do know what this means, don’t you? It means that Margaret Chan isn’t just a tool and an imbecile, she’s a liar. Granted, those options aren’t mutually exclusive. Either way, she should resign from her position:

In fact, North Korea had one of the lowest recorded per capita total expenditure on health in 2006 of any country in the world.105 The state’s paltry expenditure on health, in spite of the urgent need for medical training, access to medicines and public health education, violates North Korea’s obligation to provide for the basic health of its population.

Let me just express my relief that Amnesty can find North Korea on a map, because by the second year of any Republican president’s term, the question does tend to arise. And with that obligatory criticism dispensed with, Amnesty has actually written a good, hard-hitting, report.

The Associated Press picks up the Amnesty report and summarizes it this way:

North Korea’s health care system is in shambles with doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking essential medicine, heat and power, a human rights watchdog said Thursday.

North Korea’s state health care system has been deteriorating for years amid the country’s economic difficulties. Many of its 24 million people reportedly face health problems related to chronic malnutrition, such as tuberculosis and anemia, Amnesty International said in a report on the state of the health care system.

Oh, and North Korea’s universal, free health care is neither, but you knew that:

North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”

But on the plus side, positively no death panels!

Many interviewees said they had to walk as long as two hours to get to a hospital for surgery, said Norma Kang Muico, an Amnesty researcher and author of the report. North Koreans are numbed to what was wrong with the health system, because “things keep progressively getting worse, or even staying the same but at that low level,” she told reporters in Seoul on Thursday. Amnesty blamed ….

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. International sanctions that starve North Korean babies and infringe on its sovereignty! Right?

…. failed or counterproductive government policies and said North Korea should cooperate with aid donors to ensure transparency in the distribution of food assistance and guarantee that medical personnel are paid adequately.

Damn neocons.

Much of Amnesty’s report is about the root cause of the poor health of its people: the lack of food. Amnesty’s original report contains a good history of the regime’s frustration of transparent food aid distribution and monitoring, and this:

North Korea has an obligation to accept international humanitarian assistance when it cannot meet the needs of its own people. But the North Korean government has refused some urgently needed humanitarian assistance on political grounds.32 For example, in May 2008, the US government resumed food aid to North Korea for the first time in three years. But due to strained relations in March 2009, North Korea refused to accept any further food aid from the US and told five US humanitarian aid organizations33 to leave the country by the end of the month. In March 2010, the US government said it would consider resuming food aid to North Korea if the North retracted its refusal of humanitarian assistance.34

One 24 year-old defector from North Hamgyeong relates how he was hitching a ride on a freight train and fell off. Big mistake. His ankle was crushed, and the treatment wasn’t much better than the accident:

“Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain,” said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. “I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.”

Eaten yet? Depending on your answer, you may want to skip past this part:

Na, a 21-year-old man from Onsong, North Hamgyong province, worked with his mother from the age of 8 to 12 years at the local coal mine. Since the early 2000s, he suffered from chronic digestive problems and tried to ameliorate his pain through self-medication by taking aspirin65 at night. He recounted how intestinal or maw worms (Ascaris lumbricoides) “30cm in length” emerged from his mouth. Although Na took anti-worm medication, the worms continued to re-appear due to “poor hygiene”. According to him, the low level of hygiene was due to his work environment, coupled with living in close proximity to farm animals, open sewer and waste that was not properly disposed.66

A 2010 report by South Korea’s Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) looked at medical exams of North Korean settlers who had arrived in South Korea in 2008. It revealed that nearly half of young North Koreans, aged between 13 and 18, were infected with parasites, such as maw worms. The overall rate of infection for that year was 29 per cent.

I’ll give you one last quote, from Barbara Demick of the L.A. Times, who has written plenty about the quality of North Korean health care in her recent book:

“I was screaming so much from the pain, I thought I was going to die. They had tied my hands and legs to prevent me from moving,” said a 56-year-old woman from Musan who had an appendectomy performed without anesthesia. [....]

A 17-year-old girl from Musan, a city near the Chinese border, who defected in February of this year said people often used illegal drugs, particularly “ice,” a highly addictive methamphetamine that is manufactured inside North Korea. “You do drugs if you have a cold, a stomachache, for whatever is wrong,” said the girl, who was interviewed in March by The Times. The Amnesty International report also said North Koreans were using morphine and opium derivatives to medicate themselves for lack of proper pharmaceuticals.

What else emerges from the report is that North Korea’s medical system is a hollow infrastructure — one with a lot of clinics, doctors, and nurses, but no instruments, supplies, equipment, or medicine, and one where the only people who get treated are the privileged or the new rich. That means it’s a system that could be coopted. An underground religious, political, or humanitarian group could help its supporters or beneficiaries inside North Korea get medical care by paying doctors and nurses with money and medicine. The doctors and nurses need the money, and initially, they wouldn’t know and might not care who was paying the bills, at least until they realized they were also incriminated.

The Decline of North Korea’s Dope Industry

According to the Treasury Department, North Korea is still printing fake dollars, but no major North Korean meth and heroin shipments have been intercepted in recent years, leading it to believe that the regime is out of that business:

“There is insufficient evidence to say with certainty that state-sponsored trafficking by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has stopped entirely in 2009,” the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the department said. “Nonetheless, the paucity of public reports of drug trafficking with a direct DPRK connection suggest strongly that such high-profile drug trafficking has either ceased, or has been reduced very sharply.”

The annual report said, “No confirmed instances of large-scale drug trafficking involving the DPRK state or its nationals were reported in 2009,” noting, “This is the seventh consecutive year that here were no known instances of large-scale methamphetamine or heroin trafficking to either Japan or Taiwan with direct DPRK state institution involvement.” [....]

The report noted that trafficking of methamphetamine along the North Korea-China border continues. “There are indications that international drug traffickers can purchase methamphetamine in kilogram quantities in some of the major towns on the Chinese side of the DPRK-China border,” it said. [Yonhap]

You can read the full State Department report here. Here’s what it says about Supernote counterfeiting, by the way:

“Counterfeit $100 U.S. notes called supernotes continue to turn up in various countries, including in the United States,” it said. “There are reports, for example, of supernote seizures in San Fransisco and a very large supernote seizure in Busan, South Korea, during 2008 and 2009.” Supernotes are uniquely associated with North Korea, the report said. “But it is not clear if recent seizures are notes which have been circulating for some time, or they are recently-counterfeited new notes.”

Overall, the evidence I’ve seen supports the view that North Korea’s large scale, state-sponsored meth and heroin production and export business has dropped off sharply, although it’s also possible that they’ve just gotten better at not getting caught. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Kim Jong Il has decided to just say no to drugs. North Korean diplomats are still being busted for selling other drugs on a fairly regular basis, though I’m not aware of any major drug busts last year.

Most likely, North Korea’s large-scale dope manufacturing is rusting just like pretty much ever major industry in North Korea. North Korea, which has tried to overcome the law of comparative advantage with silly ideas like ostrich and rabbit farms, is thought to have brought in experts from the Golden Triangle to teach it how to grow poppies. Former prisoners have identified this field in Camp 15, a political prison camp, as one place where opium poppies are grown:

camp-15-opium-field.jpg

North Korea’s short growing season may have done as much to doom this initiative as anything, including high-profile drug interceptions and the general decline of North Korean industry.

Where North Korea manufactures (or manufactured) illicit (to us) drugs is no longer a very well kept secret. At least some of the facilities used to manufacture the drugs were originally built by the Japanese during the occupation period. Here’s the Nanam Pharmaceutical Factory …

nanam-pharma.jpg

and the Hamheung Pharmaceutical Factory:

hungnam-pharma.jpg

A big thank you to Curtis for those last two locations. For much, much more on North Korea’s dope industry, I refer you to this detailed paper by Lieutenant Commander Cindy Hurst.

This doesn’t mean that North Korea isn’t still producing plenty of meth and heroin, although most of the industry seems to have turned pro. As I’ve described here in more detail, the collapse of North Korea’s economy left a number of scientists and chemists with all the knowledge needed to set up their own meth labs and with no other means to survive. Despite North Korea’s poverty, there’s a demand for drugs to stave off hunger and dreariness, and as a substitute for medically appropriate medicines that aren’t widely available. As a result, the city of Hamhung in particular has a severe problem with methamphetamine addiction. The latest from Open News is that students are turning to selling dope (and in some cases, their diplomas) to survive:

North Korean university students have the burden of paying for living expenses and other financial sacrifices requested by the university. In the case of university students in downtown Haesan last year, it has been estimated that the average amount money spent a year is about 18,000-20,000 yuan, which is equivalent to 900,000-1,000,000 won in North Korean currency before the currency reform. Moreover, the students who are in the final semester need to pay a bribe for graduation. The graduation payment is about 6,000-8,000 yuan (about 300,000-400,000 won before currency reform). The source has stated that the reason why the students need to pay bribes even though the North Korean society provides a free education is because bribing is prevalent within the schools. This is why that the North Korean university students have no choice but to be involved in criminal acts such as drug trafficking and selling their diploma.

The source further explained about students who are selling their diploma which they have gained with a great amount of effort. According to him, the trend of selling diploma has become popular among the students who have finished their military service, have left their family in suburban areas, or have a low living standards. The portion of such students is approximately 1-2 per class. Also, it is possible for them to change their pictures and names before putting them on the transaction market by contacting the managerial staffs at school. The universities are indeed supporting the diploma selling by condoning it.

Such diplomas are being sold to the people who are rich and want to gain social success. It is because graduating from university is one of the factors that can contribute to gaining success in the society. Also, the price of the diploma, in the case of a diploma from the School of Education, is worth about 300,000 won (before the currency reform).

The source estimated that it was around the mid-1990s when North Korean students have faced such a difficult situations. Although such situations have declined during the late 1990s, it has restarted since the early 2000 before the recent currency reform. Also, it has dramatically increased ever since the currency reform. Furthermore, the source has added that this trend that is not only confined to Heasan, Yangkang Province but is prevalent in other parts of North Korea. [Open News, Mi-Ok Kim]

17 March 2009

INTOLERABLE SUFFERING, STARVATION, torture, almost universal suffering, yada yada:

Thai jurist Vitit Muntarbhorn told the world body’s Human Rights Council that the situation in the communist-ruled country was “dire and desperate” with the population living in fear and pressed to inform on each other. “The country is under one-party rule. At the pinnacle there is an oppressive regime, bent on personal survival, under which the ordinary people of the land undergo intolerable and interminable sufferings,” he said.

Diplomats said his comments and an accompanying report, although similar in their conclusions to studies of North Korea from independent rights groups, were among the most critical on one country ever presented to a U.N. forum. Muntarbhorn, formally a special rapporteur for the Council which is not obliged to act on his recommendations, said the North Korean government’s abuse of its citizens should be addressed by the entire global community. [Reuters, Robert Evans]

Interesting to see Reuters report this:

Although North Korea and the military government in Myanmar have been the subject of relatively mild resolutions in the past, the Council — where Islamic countries have a strong voice — has issued five condemnations of Israel. [....]

Collective punishment was used, with whole families persecuted and sent into detention when a member falls foul of the authorities, he said. Public executions were common. Torture was used extensively and in the country’s jails, lack of food and forced labor helped ensure “many prisons are a death trap for the inmates.”

Yes, duly noted. And it’s pretty much foregone that the U.N. won’t do a damn thing about it as long as Ban Ki Moon is in change and China holds a veto. It can’t hurt that most members of the Islamic bloc are North Korean arms clients, frequently in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718. More here.

THE STORY OF MI SUN is one of nine featured in a series of short videos produced by LiNK. LiNK continues to impress me with advances in its artistry and creativity. If you like the good work that LiNK does, consider sending them a few bucks.

THE LATEST GOOD FRIENDS DISPATCH IS OUT, with some perspective for all the grim news about our economy. I’m guessing things aren’t about to get this bad:

Ryongdae Coal Mine, located in the Workers District, new Sungchun, in Sungchun County of South Pyongan Province, has been supplying its partial production to the Pyongyang Thermoelectric Power Plant. However, there has been a recent failure in supply, due to low productivity volume. The production level has dropped to about 27,000 MT a month. This coal mine had produced over 100,000 MT a month and about 1,000,000 MT a year. The workers blame their obsolete equipment, a lack of electricity, and transportation problems, as well as a lack of workers. There are only about 6,000 registered workers at this site; such a seriously depleted work force is due to a decrease in attendance level. A coal miner in his forties, named Choi Hyuk, said, “They do not give us our rations or any other vitamins. This is why attendance level has declined. Poor coal miners and mine diggers have nothing else to do but live as beggars. [Good Friends No. 268]

As always, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, including more on North Korea’s efforts to combat its serious methamphetamine problem.

North Korea Has a Meth Problem, Part 2

After I wrote here recently about North Korea’s growing meth problem, it occurred to me that I never talked about how, as a prosecutor, I learned how awful meth really is. I spent just shy of two years of my Army time assigned to Ft. Irwin, California, home of the OPFOR. During most of that time, I was the prosecutor, or Trial Counsel. Irwin is a great place to drive a T-72, shoot AK’s, or go out on field exercises to launch mock raids on “Blue Force” units. With typical summer temperatures over at 100 degrees, it is not a good place for strenuous outdoor activity, nor is a good place to be a single guy.

Irwin, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, adjoins the southern boundary of Death Valley. Irwin is unusual for its lack of a camp town. It has no off-post assemblage of bars and used car lots, and your on-post entertainment is limited to a shoppette, a PX, and two bars. After that, there’s just a long, dull, dangerous 37-mile 2-lane road without a single house or building beside it. This ends at I-15 and an armpit of a town called Barstow. One of the major industries of Barstow is meth labs. I got to know the cops there, and they showed me their collection of photos — meths labs in garages, in kitchens, in semi-trailers; meth labs behind false walls; meth labs in attics. San Bernardino County, with its vast expanse of desert and death of economic bounty of any kind, produces tons of the stuff.

Like the rest of the county, Ft. Irwin had a meth problem. You’d see it when units that did piss tests. They’d show clusters of users in the barracks. For a while, meth users would be star performers. You’d be a star performer, too, if you had twice the energy and never slept. It would catch up with you, of course. Absent exceptionally good performance and rehab prospects, we’d separate meth users out on a Chapter 14-12b. The stuff was so addictive and contagious that we just wanted the problem gone, and by the time we could court-martial a user, he’d have hooked up three other people with the stuff. We’d court-martial dealers, of course, along with such special cases as users who stole and wrecked their roommates’ cars while AWOL. I had two of those. In those cases, we could put them in pre-trial confinement and let the judge credit them for time served.

As a prosecutor, I elicited testimony from experts, rehab counselors, and even one long-time user about meth’s effects: paranoia, episodes of dangerous euphoria, and eventually, psychosis. One user testified that he taped black construction paper over his windows so that he could sleep for days on end when he crashed. There are a lot of debates about what about meth is so destructive to the human body, and the debate about what causes “meth mouth” is a good example. But it’s clear that for whatever reason, meth is visibly destructive to the people who use it. Sometimes, you can actually spot a tweak just by his sunken cheeks and eyes and rotten teeth (unless the person simply happens to be British, of course).

Sad to say, it’s the West, the region I call home, where the impact is most visible. Meth is doing to the West, albeit more gradually, what crack did to Washington, DC in the 80′s.

After two years of this, I was ready to cool my eyes with the occasional sight of the female form and culture more exotic than AM/PM cheeseburgers. When a spot opened up in Korea, which wasn’t a popular assignment in the Army, I was ready to try living anywhere there be plenty of spicy grilled flesh and leggy, coquettish nubility. And no meth cases, either. Very few drug cases at all, in fact, unless you count the ones that began with soju bowls (if you do count those, then all of my cases in Korea were drug cases). We had occasional LSD cases, but most of the few drug cases we had were about ecstasy. And compared to meth, unless the recipe or dosage are off, LSD and ecstasy in particular are both pretty mild stuff.

So when GI Korea read my post about meth in North Korea and linked to this, I was gobsmacked. Meth in Korea? During my four years in Korea, I read the MP blotter almost every day and knew something about just about every Army court-martial on the peninsula. And although I allow for having forgotten or missed one or two incidents, I don’t recall one single meth-related arrest or prosecution during my entire four-year tour, which only ended in 2002. Whatever drugs the Koreans had, our soldiers would inevitably get in Hongdae. So how did meth go from being a non-issue in the USFK, and presumably for Koreans, too, to being Korea’s “drug of choice?” That’s definitely a recent trend, and it’s bad news for Korean society, North and South alike.

There are two answers to that question for which there’s some evidentiary support. The first involves smuggling by sea, and I note that Richardson links to a new report of North Koreans getting hard time for smuggling meth into Japan (you have to wonder how prison in Japan stacks up against ordinary life in Wonsan). There’s also that North Korean ship suspected of smuggling meth into Pusan, which has a truly seedy subculture around Texas Street. Once an American ghetto, T Street is now mostly a place where Russian sailors stagger the streets chundering on all else who dare tread there.

The other plausible answer comes from that 2008 State Department narcotics report:

The China-DPRK border region is the only area in the world where there are continuing reports of drug trafficking involving DPRK nationals. Most reports indicate small-scale trafficking by individual North Koreans who cross the border into China. In some cases there are reports of slightly larger-scale trafficking by locally prominent individuals living along the border who misuse their modest positions of local influence in the ruling party to traffic in methamphetamine. Also, there are indications that some foreign nationals from Japan and South Korea might travel to this area to purchase the stimulant drugs available there. [U.S. Dep't of State]

So I guess not all South Koreans in Dandong are missionaries. Then there’s this documentary about human trafficking across the Chinese-North Korean border. A friend on Capitol Hill has seen parts of it, and tells me that one scene actually shows North Koreans smuggling meth into China. So can China blame its meth problem on North Korea? Not so fast:

Quantities of heroin and methamphetamine produced in North Korea continue to find their way into China’s northeastern provinces that border North Korea. Beijing claims that there are no heroin refineries in China. However, China is a major producer of licit ephedrine and pseudoephedrine which when diverted from licit uses can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. There is a widespread belief among law enforcement agencies, worldwide, that large-scale illicit methamphetamine producers in other countries use Chinese-produced ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and there are numerous examples from criminal investigations to confirm this suspicion. Diverted Chinese precursor chemicals may sustain synthetic drug production in other countries as far away as Mexico, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Although China enacted enhanced precursor chemical control laws in November 2005 and is fully engaged in multilateral and bilateral efforts to stop diversion from its chemical production sector, Chinese efforts have not matched the size of its enormous chemical industry with sufficient resources to effectively ensure against diversion. [U.S. Dep't of State]

Which is good news for South Korea, I suppose, since they can plausibly blame non-Koreans for at least a part of their meth problem. But make no mistake about this — meth may be Kim Jong Il’s problem today, but it’s going to be all of Korea’s problem tomorrow.

North Korea Has a Meth Problem

North Korea’s government has long been suspected of producing illicit drugs for export. In 2003,  a high-level defector testified that the goverment is deeply involved in producing and exporting opiates,  including heroin, and amphetamines. North Korea’s official ideology, really “crude, race-based nationalism” thinly veiled in socialism, would have had no problem justifying the poisoning of Japanese and Australian kids, but it was just a matter of time before North Korean drugs found their way into North Korean society. Until recently, reports of North Korean drug abuse were fragmentary. No longer.


The Australian Air Force sinks the suspected North Korean drug ship Pong Su

Today, there is too much evidence to deny that North Korea’s drug problem is serious and growing, and that it threatens  the country’s  social and political  stability.  A  series of alarming reports  in the Daily NK paints a bleak picture of abuse of opiates, including heroin,  but especially of a form of methampetamine the North Koreans call “bingdu” or “philopon.” 

The “best” philipon comes from a state pharmaceutical factory in the city of Hamheung, although  meth is also produced at a factory in Chongjin, and increasingly, in clandestine meth labs. 

nk-opium.jpg nk-drug-addict.jpg nk-meth.jpg
Left to right: North Korean opium, an illegal drug user, philopon (Daily NK photos)

NORTH KOREA’S DRUG USERS

Can North Koreans can afford drugs?  Some can.  Not everyone starves in North Korea.  For the poor, North Korea’s food situation may be as bad as it has been since the Great Famine, but  even then, most  of those in  the  upper levels  in North Korea’s complex  caste system had enough to eat.  North Korea’s  elite  can afford  DVD players, boob jobs, and other kinds of jobsThey  can afford  drugs, too.  Today, elite  Pyongyang’s drug problem is second only to that in Hamheung:   

Considering North Korea’s cost of living, a family which consumes more than 100,000 won per month is living with worries of food. People who are falling into the trap of drugs are this class of people who earn more than 100,000 won per month.  Choi said, “People who earn more than 100,000 won have tried drugs at least once or twice. Choi believes that at least 1 out of 10 people in Hamheung’s upper class are drug addicts.  [Daily NK]

Drug use in North Korea doesn’t seem to be a function of ideology; rather, it is one of availability and money.  Since the famine and the resulting breakdown of the economic system, a few  members of the elite have become relatively wealthy as traders, and plenty of those traders are now addicts.  Recently, one member of a North Korean family that defected to Japan by sea was caught with a small quantity of meth.  The well-connected NGO Good Friends claims that a group of middle school students and their parents were recently caught running a meth lab.  Even a Hamheung University chemistry professor was arrested for running  a lab. 

The North Koreans must realize that their  military would seem to be the most fertile soil of all for drug problems. In North Korea, military service  usually means a ticket to  regular meals.  Although  there are exceptions, North Korea never has to worry about meeting its recruiting goals.  On the other hand, morale can’t be very  high, either. North Korean men often serve more than a decade in uniform, but  can’t get married or have girlfriends.  Look at some of the bleak posts where they serve, without the kind of on- or off-post entertainment available to U.S. or South Korean soldiers.  I spent five of my seven-plus years in the U.S. Army prosecuting and defending at courts-martial, and probably about 20% of  my cases were drug cases. Leaving aside the debate over “root causes,” the most common direct cause of drug abuse by American soldiers was probably boredom. Hunger, fatigue, draconian discipline, and sexual frustration probably make North Korean barracks fertile ground for drug abuse.

SECURITY FORCES UNABLE TO CONTROL THE PROBLEM

Sometimes, the dealers are brazen enough to resist arrest:

In yet another incident that occurred in Soonam district, Chongjin, North Hamkyung on February 8, safety agents, attempting to interdict drug sales, were attacked by drug-peddling youth. “The three safety agents scuffled with two youth possessing 50 grams of drugs and arrested them,” explained the newsletter.  [Daily NK]

When times are hard, however, official corruption is the inevitable result.  Another Daily NK report claims that a Hamheung police official was executed for leaking details of an ongoing drug investigation, for taking bribes from drug traffickers in a state trading company, and for allowing foreign films to be smuggled into the North. The city is now the target of a crackdown against “anti-socialist activities,” and the regime has decreed harsh new punishments for dealers:

In response to Chairman Kim Jong-Il’s recent and repeated calls for effective restraint on “˜Ice,’ authorities have revised existing rules on “˜Ice’ related crimes. People who are charged in “˜Ice’ related crimes are punished as follows: First, those who sell or trade more than 3 kg of “˜Ice’ are executed by firing squad. Second, those who deal more than 2 kg and under 3 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to a Labor Education Center (LEC) for life 무기노동교화형. Third, those who sell 1 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to LEC 노동교화형 for 10-12 years. And fourth, those who sell less that 1 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to LEC for 5-10 years.  [Good Friends]

It’s hard to imagine how successful the crackdown will be when even the Hamheung police are  stoned on  philopon.  Another police official stands accused of drug dealing and  use in the border city of Hoeryong. Even the head of Hoeryong’s customs house is believed to have let drug shipments through.  Reports of corruption investigations are now so common as to suggest the possibility of a purge.  Good Friends reports that North Korea is now opening new mental hospitals to house a growing addict population. 

MORE STATE DEPARTMENT AIRBRUSHING

Just as North Korea’s drug problem is becoming impossible not to notice, diplomatic expediency  requires our State Department  to pretend anyway.   State’s new annual report claims that there is  no recent evidence of state-sponsored drug shipments, but does hint at North Korea’s own drug problem.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that small-scale trafficking and drug abuse in the DPRK itself and along its border with China continue. The China-DPRK border region is the only area in the world where there are continuing reports of drug trafficking involving DPRK nationals. Most reports indicate small-scale trafficking by individual North Koreans who cross the border into China. In some cases there are reports of slightly larger-scale trafficking by locally prominent individuals living along the border who misuse their modest positions of local influence in the ruling party to traffic in methamphetamine.  [U.S. Dep't of State, 2008 Annual Report on Narcotics Trafficking]

Which makes an  odd contrast to this  April 2006  Senate testimony by another State official, detailing more than 50 incidents of drug trafficking by regime officials and diplomats since 1976.  It’s no mystery why the State Department is lying, but it is surprising that they’re being this brazen about it.   When asked by the press to clarify, here’s what a State Department official said:

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. With respect to North Korea, it seems to me that according to this report the drug trafficking at the state level has sharply dropped, but at the same time you take more of the counterfeit cigarette trafficking. And do you have any specific concern on North Korea’s drug trafficking and (inaudible) of cigarette trafficking?  [....]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: [....] On anything having to do with North Korea, because of the nature of the society, it is difficult for us to accurately assess. So what we’re telling you on the drug trafficking issue is what we’ve been able to observe and infer based on what happens offshore. And while several years ago, we observed and inferred from significant seizures that there was drug trafficking going on, we have not observed that in the recent past. It does not mean that it’s not happening; it just means that based on the observations that we have been able to make — not in North Korea because we’re not there — that we don’t see continuing evidence. Absence of evidence is not anything more than absence of evidence….

[Press Conference, David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, February 29, 2008]

RISING ADDICTION, DECLINING PRODUCTION  

There probably is a grain of truth in this.  The Daily NK, relying on clandestine North Korean sources, agrees that North Korea’s drug production has decreased recently. Why? One of North Korea’s largest markets for illicit  drugs, Japan, recently ended most trade with North Korea.  Less lawful trade means  one less  pipeline for drug shipments. 
 


Japanese Coast Guard fires on a suspected North Korean drug ship.

The growth of another export market, in China, has created friction with the Chinese government.  Suspected North Korean drug sales to South Korea were overlooked during the Roh Administration.  That probably won’t last during Lee Myung-Bak’s term.

The Treasury Department’s sanctions in 2005 and 2006 also made it much more difficult to recover the profits from North Korea’s drug production that producers almost certainly had to consider other alternatives — either cutting back on production or flooding the local market with what they couldn’t sell abroad.  The economists Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard estimate that the sanctions did  serious damage to North Korea’s  illicit income:

We estimate that together with legal arms sales, revenue from contraband–including the production and trafficking of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, smuggling of liquor and endangered-species parts, to name a few–may have accounted for as much as half of North Korea’s exports in the late 1990s but has fallen to roughly 15 percent in recent years due to sanctions. In the meantime, aid now finances 40 percent of imports. There are benefits to playing nice in the nuclear talks–or pretending to.  [Newsweek, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard]

Then there are internal factors:  the collapse of North Korea’s chemical industry, which forced chemists and technicians to find other ways to feed their families with their skills; and  the collapse of North Korea’s health system, which  means that citizens take illicit drugs to treat or dull the pain of illness.   


Corrupt border guards watch  as a North Korean smuggles an unknown cargo in from China.

Whatever the reason, North Korea appears to have suffered the same fate on a national scale that most drug dealers eventually suffer on an individual scale. The result may be a generation of addicts who will turn to crime if their suppy is ever interrupted. What can the regime do about the problem? Cutting back on the production of illegal drugs and the supply of precursor chemicals seems an obvious solution, but the regime is under terrific economic strain, and drugs probably supply a significant amount of the regime’s foreign exchange.  Besides, corruption and low morale among North Korean border guards means drugs can come in across the border.

The conditions that caused North Korea’s drug problem won’t begin to be reversed as long as Kim Jong Il remains in power.  The most likely result will be that drug use will be just  one of many  social problems South Korea will inherit when the regime finally collapses. 

We must be smoking what they’re growing

North Korea was dropped from the U.S. list of countries producing illicit drugs, a sign of further relief of tensions between the two countries.

“North Korea is not affecting the United States as much as the requirements on the list,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christy McCampbell said on Sept. 17 in Washington, according to a transcript of her speech on the State Department Web site.  [Bloomberg]

And that decision is based on what?  On  absolutely nothing but the interests of  Chris Hill’s next book deal, of course.  It’s what  stinks so much about this entire deal.  You wake up one morning and see something like like this without so much as a word of public discussion beforehand, knowing that it couldn’t possibly be based on any verifiable fact, and knowing that hardly anyone else will even notice, much less care.  It’s my addiction to futility that keeps me going.

Indeed, it seems like only yesterday when the North Korean dope freighter Pong Su was caught off the coast of Australia unloading $144 million in high-quality heroin.  Youtube has video of the Australian Navy sinking the ship.  North Korea is still a suspected supplier of drugs to addicts in Japan, South Korea, and presumably anywhere else its retailers  can find customers.  North Korea even grows its own opium, and some of that opium is grown in Camp 15, one of Kim Jong Il’s concentration camps.  Here’s a satellite photo of one of the fields identified by a survivor, courtesy of the U.S. Commission for Human Rights in North Korea.

yodok_mapj_ipsok.jpg

 

North Korea is also reported to be a producer of high quality meth (see below).  So did our State Department actually go there and verify that (a) the fields are fallow, or (b) that this was  actually an operation run by rogue gulag inmates?  Not a chance.  Their answer isn’t that North Korea is out of the drug business.  The answer  is  that  it’s somebody else’s problem.  Never mind that drugs are a fungible and generally untraceable commodity.  Some recent articles on North Korea’s illegal drug production:

To say that North Korea is not producing and pushing drugs when all of the evidence we have suggests that it is is quite simply a lie — a dirty, expedient, political lie that only shows Pyongyang  that we will embrace its lies as our own.  It rewards crime and mendacity, and thus invites more of it.  Does this bode well for an honest process of disarmament?  Or, for that matter, our national drug policy?  The  Administration is simply playing politics with the inconvenient fact of North Korea’s dope dealing, the same way it played politics with its money laundering, the same way it played politics with its illegal arms dealing, the same way it wants to play politics with  the list of state sponsors of  terrorism.   Each case demonstrates a new low in disregard for law and truth for the sake of a dubious objective.  There are even signs we’re willing to ignore just the latest exposure of North Korea’s proliferation.  So just how thorough does anyone suppose our inspection and verification regime will be? 

If I had known in 2004 that I was actually voting for a Jimmy Carter foreign policy, I would  not have voted at all. 

See also:  

*   Orchard Update:   Sleep well.  More suspicious ships are headed from North Korea to Syria, but we’re  ”tracking” them!   For the last several weeks, in fact:

The U.S. military and intelligence community have been tracking several shipments of material they believe have left North Korea and are destined for Syria or may have already landed there, a Pentagon official confirmed.

This same unnamed official, asked to clarify just what the Israelis bombed last week, said that  ”none of the information he had reviewed as part of his job indicated any nuclear material was involved.”  But in my roundup of the Orchard story here, you will see that the intelligence community has largely been frozen out of this story, probably to prevent leaks like this one doing further damage to Chris Hill’s shaky sellout. 

Some of the material is believed to have been high-grade metals that could be used in weapons such as missiles or solid-fuel rocket technology.  But “there is concern with shipments going into the region and with their eventual arrival in Syria,” the official said.  The United States is also looking into the possibility material had been shipped from North Korea to Iran and traveled overland into Syria, he said, adding there were indications a ship had docked in Syria recently.

Several of which have apparently already slipped through and unloaded.  Nor is it clear  whether this missile proliferation story has anything to do with Orchard.

Another U.S. official said he has seen satellite imagery of that attack that shows a hole in the center of a building’s roof with the walls still largely intact.  That would strongly indicate a laser guided bomb was used with a fused warhead that exploded after the bomb entered the building roof. The photo is highly classified and not expected to be publicly released.

Axis, shmaxis.

*   More scary news from the axis, via the Hahvahd Crimson:

Most troubling, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a Paris-based Iranian protest group, alleges that North Korea is sharing nuclear technology with Iran. Kim Jong Il equips rogue states with weapons and nuclear know-how, both of which may potentially fall into terrorists’ hands.

*   Three Words:  No Police Protection.

A request by Iran’s president to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site next week has been turned down by police and blasted by U.S. diplomats as an attempt to turn ground zero into a “photo op.”

That has to be one of the most offensively cynical things I’ve ever heard from the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism.  Here’s a flashback to the 9-11 Commission Report:

In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000.

I’d read that quote aloud in every police and firefighters’ union  hall in Manhattan, pass out mapquests of Ahmedinejad’s itinerary, and watch the fun ensue.  On the grander scale, that seems a  smaller breach of decorum  than letting a pack of whooping loonies take over somebody’s embassy and hold its staff hostage for more than a year.  Not only would  a serious public beating  be a domestic humiliation for Ahmedinejad,  we probably underestimate the value of the impact it would have on Middle Eastern audiences.  Our long-term goals  might be better served by offering more funds, arms, and training to the Iranian guerrillas Michael Totten interviews here

*   Does Air Koryo reuse its sandwich bags and plastic cups?   I have no way of knowing, and I reckon the reporter who wrote this story has no way of knowing, either.  There’s seldom more than a grain of interesting information in a journalist’s traverse of the standard Pyongyang circuit of approved monuments and sites.  Here is that grain:

“Delete the picture!” guide Kim Hyon-choi scolded one man among a small group of foreign journalists. “You mustn’t take pictures of the bad side of our country, ugly things. “¦ We will confiscate them.

On subsequent days, however, the rules changed. No photos of soldiers. No photos of the rickety electric trams in the capital. No photos from the moving tourist bus.  The tour guides seemed more afraid of one another than they were of the foreigners, each one whispering in private that he or she wanted to offer more freedom but feared being ratted out by the others.

That’s a first.  Although it’s tempting to make too much of the remark of one man, I’ve never heard of any of these loyalist selectees privately admitting fear or disagreement.