Skip to main content

5 men extradited to U.S. in North Korean meth case

By Evan Perez, CNN Justice Department Reporter and Madison Park, CNN
November 20, 2013 -- Updated 0852 GMT (1652 HKT)
This file photo shows a small bag of methamphetamine weighing one gram.
This file photo shows a small bag of methamphetamine weighing one gram.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 5 men arrested in Thailand are being flown to the United States, CNN has learned
  • They are accused of trafficking North Korean drugs, a source says
  • The arrests are part of a broader investigation made public in September
  • North Korea has been producing drugs since the 1980s, report says

(CNN) -- U.S. drug agents in Thailand took custody of five men wanted in the United States on allegations of being part of a drug ring that sought to traffic in North Korean methamphetamine and other drugs, CNN has learned.

The men, who have British, Filipino, Taiwanese and Slovak citizenship, were being flown to New York to face charges, according to a source.

Thai authorities announced the arrests after the men were turned over to U.S. authorities. A U.S. law enforcement official said the charges would be made public soon.

The men are part of a broader investigation that federal prosecutors made public in September, filing charges against a group of former U.S. and European ex-military men in a murder-for-hire and drug-importation plot.

The Drug Enforcement Administration concocted a sting operation and arrested Joseph Hunter, a former U.S. Army sniper trainer nicknamed Rambo, and four others in the sting case.

The five more recently arrested were expelled by Thai authorities and put on a DEA plane to New York.

Additional details of the charges couldn't be learned because they remain under seal.

Drug trafficking from North Korea has occurred for decades with at least 50 documented incidents. In previous years, North Korea had been linked to shipments of heroin and methamphetamine, according to the CIA World Factbook.

In 2003, a North Korean ship, Pong Su which was carrying nearly 300 pounds of heroin, was seized along the eastern coast of Australia after a four-day chase.

There isn't enough information to determine whether the North Korean government is currently involved in drug trafficking, according to the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the U.S. State Department

"There have been no confirmed reports of large-scale drug trafficking involving DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) state entities since 2004," it stated. "This suggests that state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or that the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs."

The report also highlighted that the "proximity and availability of precursor chemicals in China likely contribute to the production of methamphetamine within North Korea." It alluded to reported transactions between North Korean traffickers and organized crime groups.

Corrupt security agents and government officials are likely responsible for transnational drug operations, according to a different report published in North Korean Review in 2010.

There is great difficulty in collecting data or accurate information regarding drug trafficking because of the secrecy in North Korea.

So the report's authors, Minwoo Yun and Eunyoung Kim relied on interviews with 28 North Korean defectors living in China and Thailand as well as various documents. They could not be reached Wednesday for this story.

Their report alleges that in the 1980s, the North Korean state "deliberately chose various transnational crime businesses including drug trafficking" during economically troubled times. The North Koreans specialized in heroin trade and kept the drug away from the ordinary population.

Once the economy veered into famine and economic disaster in the 1990s, individuals desperate to survive turned to private drug enterprise, according to Yun and Kim's report. Corrupt agents and officials sold drugs to transnational organized crime operations through the North Korea-China border, they wrote. Family members also became private drug traffickers, they added.

After poppy production failed due to weather, methamphetamine became more popular, according to a 2007 Drug Trafficking and North Korea report prepared for the U.S. Congress.

One of the interviewees in Yun and Kim's report said that the city of Hamhueng is the center of methamphetamine production, because it produces the country's chemicals.

Internally, North Koreans started using opium instead of hard-to-obtain and pricey medication, according to the report. And recreational drug users are more likely wealthy businessmen or members of the Party, according to South Korean media.

More recently, methamphetamine is more widely used in North Korea as stricter China border controls forced drug producers to seek a local market for "ice," according to a report in the Spring 2013 edition of the journal North Korean Review.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0822 GMT (1622 HKT)
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
A defector from the North Korean government says the country's cyberwarfare is more dangerous than its nuclear weaponry.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
North Korea's fury over "The Interview" appears to have taken the state's oversensitivity to new extremes.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0039 GMT (0839 HKT)
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0559 GMT (1359 HKT)
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 0543 GMT (1343 HKT)
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 0851 GMT (1651 HKT)
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity," the country declared.
ADVERTISEMENT