Beyond Nuclear Weapons: The International Criminality of North Korea

Francis Grice | January 15, 2018

After a year of nerve-wracking nuclear sabre rattling by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the world appeared to step back from the brink of a full-scale nuclear war after North and South Korea began tentative talks relating to the upcoming Olympic Games in South Korea. 

This return to the negotiating table is undoubtedly good news, and yet it obscures the broader issue that the current nuclear crisis is not the only reason why the world should be concerned about North Korea. The often forgotten reality is that, entirely independently of being a nuclear pariah, North Korea is an internationally criminal state and it has been that way for a very long time. Indeed, while North Korea only carried out its first nuclear test in 2006, it had been breaching international law by undertaking criminal acts against other states and their peoples for decades previously and has continued this pattern into the present day. Even if the current nuclear crisis can be defused, therefore, North Korea will still pose a broader challenge that the international community should not simply forget or overlook. 

There are six particularly notable spheres of non-nuclear international deviance that North Korea has been involved with since the end of the Korean War and which it could use again in the future. These are assassinations, aerial and naval terrorism, organized crime, kidnappings, state sponsorship of terrorism, and cyber warfare. Some details about these are outlined below, followed by a selection of policy implications. It should be noted that in most, if not all, of the cases outlined below, the Kim Family Regime has denied involvement, yet the available evidence points overwhelming to their culpability.


The violent elimination of individuals who might threaten the rule of the Kim Family Regime has long been a staple of North Korean foreign policy. High-profile political and diplomatic figures have been targeted multiple times, with an early example being the infiltration of 31 commandos into South Korea in an abortive attempt to kill President Park Chung-hee in 1968, causing dozens of casualties. Six years later, a second attempt to assassinate Park was bungled, this time killing his wife, Yuk Young-soo. Then, in 1983, two North Korean agents detonated three bombs in Burma in an unsuccessful effort to kill South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan that left 21 bystanders dead and 46 more wounded. As a further example, the South Korean diplomat Choi Duk-Keun was beaten to death in 1996. Defectors have also been attacked, such as Yi Han-yong, the nephew of a mistress of Kim Jong-il, who was shot dead in 1997. Most famously perhaps, the older brother of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, was poisoned in 2016 by two women who claimed to have been duped into the act by North Korean operatives. Missionaries who worked in North Korea have also been attacked while abroad on the basis that they had been working to subvert the regime, including Patrick Kim, who was killed in August 2011, Kang Ho-bin, who survived a stabbing the following day, and Han Chung Ryeol, whose throat was cut in 2016.

Aerial and Naval Terrorism

North Korea also has a long record of attacking military and civilian targets in the air and sea. Attacks on aerial targets began in 1958, when a South Korean passenger jet was hijacked and diverted to Pyongyang. 26 of the passengers and crew were released, but 8 were detained permanently in the North. A second hijacking occurred 11 years later, when another South Korean passenger plane was diverted to Pyongyang, this time with 7 of the 46 occupants being forced to stay behind. That same year, the North Koreans shot down a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan, murdering 31 Americans. Then, just two decades later in 1987, North Korea detonated a bomb on a South Korean passenger jet, killing 115 civilians. 

Attacks on islands and naval assets have also been fairly frequent. One incident occurred in 1967, when North Korean coastal artillery sunk a South Korean navy ship, killing 39 sailors and injuring another 40. A further case happened in 2010, when a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean gunboat in the Yellow Sea, causing the deaths of 46 crewmen. That same year, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two soldiers and two civilians.

Organized Crime

North Korea is a major lynchpin of the organized crime network in the Asia-Pacific. It first joined the illegal drugs industry in the 1970s by growing and selling opium poppies as a supplementary source of income. North Korea’s involvement with narcotics recently skyrocketed, with Methamphetamine and Ecstasy replacing heroin as the drug of choice, adding an estimated $100-200 million each year to the regime’s coffers from these two drugs alone. Currency counterfeiting also began at a small scale in the 1970s, before growing into a network that spanned 130 countries and had introduced $45 million of fake money by 2005. Following a ten-year lull, the practice has regathered steam under Kim Jong-un, with large quantities of American dollars and Chinese Yuan now being printed. The counterfeiting and smuggling of banned and highly-regulated goods such as cigarettes, diamonds, ivory, and rhinoceros horns, is also used to generate substantial profit for the regime.

North Korea became involved in the illegal international arms trade during the 1980s, when it exported low-tech weapons to the developing world, particularly the Middle East. This practice has subsequently been expanded, as exposed by the recent captures of weapons in transit by various law enforcement agencies: 10 containers of arms were intercepted in Thailand in 2009, for example, and 132 tons of arms were apprehended on route to Egypt in 2016. Estimates for North Korea’s annual income from this trade ranges from $100-$300 million. Another lucrative area is human trafficking, for which the North Korean government has lured 50-80,000 of its citizens into working abroad – predominantly in Russia and China – where they toil in inhumane conditions for up to 20 hours a day. The regime confiscates upwards of 90% of their wages, generating approximately $2.3 billion per year.


North Korea has abducted citizens from other states for decades. South Korea has been the most affected, with some 3,800 citizens having been kidnapped since 1953, 486 of whom have never been returned. China is second on this list, with roughly 200 citizens in southern China having been snatched since the 1990s. Japan comes in third with 17 abductions that were carried out predominantly during the 1970s and 1980s, although several non-profit organizations claim that the numbers are much higher. A further 25 citizens from other countries have also been kidnapped, including one American. Abductees are typically prevented from leaving North Korea and kept in appalling conditions. As one North Korean military defector describes: “The victims remain under strict surveillance and control. They don’t have the freedom to move about freely and are forced to suffer quietly. They just have to stay in place year after year. If they make the smallest mistake, they can be instantly labelled as a spy and executed. They live out their lives in a confined space that basically amounts to a detention center.”

State Sponsorship of Terrorism

North Korea became a household name in international terrorism in 1970, when it gave refuge to the Japanese Red Army Faction after it hijacked and redirected a Japanese domestic flight to Pyongyang. The crew and passengers were returned, but the terrorists remained behind. During the subsequent decades, the group helped plan and carry out numerous malicious activities for the regime, including kidnapping, money launderingespionage, propaganda, and planting sleeper cells in Japan. Most of the group have since died or been allowed to return home, but four are still based in North Korea today.

North Korea also has a tradition of selling weapons to terrorists and other state sponsors of terrorism. This includes HamasIslamic State, Al-Qaeda, HezbollahSyria, and Iran, to whom it has sold many hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of conventional weapons and munitions, along with tunnel building advice. One worry is that North Korea might transition from vending conventional weapons to peddling nuclearchemical, and biological ones instead. This concern was shown to be well founded when North Korea was found in 2016 to have tried to sell lithium metal – used in the production of nuclear weapons – on the black market. Similarly, the U.N. intercepted two shipments from North Korea to Syria in 2017 that are believed to have contained chemical weapon components. 

Cyber Warfare

Until recently, North Korea’s cyber capabilities were seen as a joke, but under Kim Jong-un they have improved exponentially. By the end of 2017, the state possessed an elite team of 6,800 hackersmany of whom are based in China, India, and Southeast Asia. Their growing record of success includes the hacking of financial institutions across the world, bitcoin theft, and ransomware attacks, all of which currently net an annual income of around $840 million. One notable cyber-attack was the heist of $81 million from Bangladesh’s Central Bank in New York in 2016. Another was the theft and attempted blackmail for the return of the personal details of 10.3 million users from a South Korean e-commerce firm. North Korea has also undertaken cyber assaults with national security dimensions, such as the 2017 WannaCry ransomware cryptoworm that hamstrung hospitals, banks, and other institutions around the world. Another example was the pillaging of data from Sony in 2014 to deter the company from screening “the Interview” because of its negative depiction of Kim Jong-un. The severity of the hack was so great that the Obama administration branded it a “serious national security matter”.

Policy Implications

 There are five main ramifications from North Korea’s wide-reaching international criminality, as follows:

1. North Korea is a rogue state independent of its nuclear program. Even if the current talks between North and South Korea blossom into something tangible that coaxes Kim Jong-un into abandoning his nuclear arsenal, or even if his weapons are removed through some other means, North Korea’s broader pattern of malignance will remain a global blight. Consequently, the United States and its allies should expand their conceptualization of North Korea from being primarily a nuclear threat to recognizing it as a deeply-rooted international deviant across multiple overlapping criminal spheres.

2. Kim Jong-un has a broader array of options for responding violently to perceived provocations than just deciding whether or not to push his nuclear button. He could, for example, order the assassination of high-ranking officials in the United States or its allies, arrange for a terrorist bombing during the upcoming South Korean Olympic Games, or command that a cyber-attack be deployed against enemy infrastructure targets. To lessen this risk, the United States and its allies must adapt their existing strategies of deterrence, containment, and sanctions and create new approaches to not only stymie the risk of a nuclear strike but to also reduce the chance of other criminal acts being successfully carried out.

3. North Korea can offset even the most stringent of traditional economic sanctions because its illicit fundraising network can at least partially compensate for the financial shortfalls they create. In fact, rather perversely, the imposition of increasingly severe economic sanctions is driving North Korea to double-down on its criminal behaviors in order to plug ever larger holes in its income. The United States and its allies should, therefore, weigh the risks versus benefits when considering future economic sanctions. If tougher restrictions will merely drive North Korea further down the organized crime path, they may ultimately do more harm than good.

4. Cracking down on North Korea’s unlawful fundraising activities would damage its nuclear program because the regime relies upon illegally obtained monies to pay for its expenditures, including its nuclear program. Without access to these funds, therefore, Kim Jong-un might struggle to continue down the nuclear path. It is telling, for example, that the amount of money North Korea secures annually from human trafficking is $2.3 billion, given that its regime spends $1-3 billion annually on nuclear and ballistic missiles. The United States and its allies should invest more energy in trying to combat North Korea’s criminal actions across the world, both to curtail these terrible practices and as a means to undermine its nuclear capabilities.

5. Tackling North Korea’s international delinquency will likely require the United States and its allies to adopt at least a partially consultative and multilateral approach. Unpicking North Korea’s entrenchment as a major player in the illegal drugs trade across the Asia-Pacific, for example, is something that would require the involvement of police and security forces from multiple countries, including non-allies of the United States. Similarly, because North Korea’s cyber warfare divisions are based in China, India, and other states, the United States would need to work with these governments to neutralize the different cells.

Image: Kim Jong-un giving his new year’s day speech on January 1, 2018, in Pyongyang. Many speculated on his intentions and/or the meaning conveyed by his new sartorial style. From -/AFP/Getty Images. 

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