It was among the stalls lining Poacher Square that Daniel Stiles, an independent conservationist carrying out an ivory field survey in 1999, first spotted Koreans.
Only years later did Stiles realize his error: The buyers were almost certainly North Koreans, not South Koreans.
According to historians, political scientists, and various governments, North Korean diplomats are notorious for their involvement in illegal trading. Until now the spotlight has focused mainly on their smuggling activities in Europe and Asia, but a new report reveals that Africa and its wildlife also feature prominently in North Korea’s illicit portfolio.
According to the findings, published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime—a Geneva-based network composed of law enforcement, government, and development experts—the past 30 years have seen at least 18 instances involving North Korean diplomats caught trafficking rhino horn and ivory. The number of cases that slip by undetected is almost certainly many times more.
Red flags were first raised for Julian Rademeyer, the report’s author, when a bizarre news story caught his eye. In May 2015 Pak Chol-Jun, a political counselor from North Korea’s Pretoria embassy, and Kim Jong-Su, a Pretoria-based taekwondo master, were nabbed in Mozambique with close to $100,000 in cash and nearly 10 pounds of rhino horn.
The North Korean ambassador to South Africa negotiated the men’s release, but South Africa eventually expelled the political counselor. Meanwhile, the taekwondo master, who was also suspected of being a North Korean spy, according to Rademeyer’s confidential sources, told his martial arts students that he was going home to “visit family,” but he never returned.
“Just trying to get confirmation that the incident even happened was a nightmare,” Rademeyer says. “But it piqued my interest about North Korean diplomatic involvement in rhino horn and ivory trade.”
While incidents like the one in Mozambique sometimes emerge as isolated cases in the news, Rademeyer discovered an ongoing pattern of illicit activity. High-level defectors he reached for interviews described embassy officials and military attachés smuggling ivory from Angola, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as trafficking rhino horn from South Africa and Mozambique.