Yongusil 30: Sheena Greitens on Illicit Activities in North Korea

By | April 17, 2014 | No Comments

The cover to Sheena Greitens' NKHR report on North Korea's illicit business activities.

The cover to Sheena Greitens’ HRNK report on North Korea’s illicit business activities.

David Kaplan’s assertion that North Korea is not only ideologically criminal, but practically nefarious, has always been vital grist to the mill of securicrats and hawkish Langley worriers. Problematically, for every concrete and apparently overt instance of a Banco Delta Asia, there is a panoply of whispered half-truths. North Korea has apparently tried its hand at everything over the years, from counterfeiting on a transnational scale (even the creation of a “super-dollar”) to narcotic and alcohol smuggling. While the sub-economy surrounding its embassies and diplomatic missions is grubby, to say the least, when it comes to this most volatile and pugilistic of states in this field there have been few smoking guns. Equally, over recent years there has been little real analysis of the hinterland and backwaters of North Korea’s economic development and strategy.

What a relief, then, that the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) has seen fit to publish Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens’ magnificent analysis of the available evidence in her fairly definitive report entitled “Illicit: North Korea’s Evolving Operation to Earn Hard Currency.” Greitens’ fine scholarly distillation presents the ebb and flow of North Korean economic efforts set firmly in geo-political and regional context and empirically founded on a series of intriguing interviews and readings of previously disparate media sources. Key to the exercise is Greitens’ admirable and rare tendency to the objective and the academic, as she lays out the narrative flow and puts to rest some persistent myths. Given the headwinds of news and diplomatic urgency, the task is a difficult one, but Greitens’ piece is surely a definitive telling and recounting, one which Sino-NK is more than happy to recommend and which we imagine will be read for some time.

On April 15, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings Institution, where Greitens is a Nonresident Senior Fellow, hosted the release of the HRNK report. Nicholas Eberstadt and Marcus Noland, HRNK board members, commented on the presentation of the report. From the Brookings event summary:

The report… analyzes the history and current status of North Korea’s foreign currency earning operations, focusing on illicit activities. It discusses how these activities have changed in recent years and the implications for U.S. and international policies toward North Korea. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, both HRNK board members, commented on the presentation.

In the report, Greitens draws upon work published at Sino-NK or written by our core members. The following works are cited:

Marketization and its Limits: State and Private in Kimist North Korea” (Andrei Lankov)

Spreading Meth Across the Chinese-North Korean Border” (Jende Huang)

Reining in Rent Seeking: How North Korean Can Survive” (Peter Ward)

Anti-Drug Campaigns Expanding” (Joel Litt, Rodong Sinmun translation)

In Mao We Trust: The Increasing Use of Yuan in North Korea” (Chris Green)

While hard data on North Korean illicit activities remains hard to come by, Sino-NK is pleased to be a part of the conversation. Doubtless there are more sources yet to be mined, particularly those which lie along the lines of the Rodong Sinmun article cited above in which North Korea’s own narratives of drug production, abuse, and control all mingle in distinctive ways. Sheena Greitens’ report aids substantively in moving us forward toward an approach that incorporates but also supersedes merely anecdotal data from the border regions of North Korea.

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