At first glance, the meeting that occurred on January 24, 2013 could have been about any ordinary business deal. A multinational organization based in Hong Kong had cornered the market on a lucrative commodity. They needed distributors to bring their product to America, and so the organization dispatched a pair of representatives to Bangkok to meet with a potential client. That client claimed to have all the right connections in New York and money to burn.
But the deal was not ordinary. The businessmen were allegedly members of a triad crime syndicate, the would-be client was an informant for the DEA, and their lucrative commodity was a massive stockpile of ultra-pure North Korean methamphetamine stashed somewhere in the Philippines. The arrangement would eventually come to involve a shady pair of British drug merchants living in Thailand, the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang, and a team of assassins led by an ex-Army sniper nicknamed "Rambo."
Two federal conspiracy cases unsealed in late 2013 paint a lurid picture of a stranger-than-fiction international underworld that uses North Korea as a haven for meth production. According to court documents and DEA sources, the meeting in Thailand last January was a pivotal moment in an ongoing investigation that stretches from Southeast Asia to West Africa. So far eight men have been arrested and extradited to face conspiracy charges in Manhattan federal court.
News of the cases was widely reported in the days after the indictments were revealed, but scrutiny of the evidence and extensive interviews with ex-diplomats, DEA officials, and independent experts has shed light on the shadowy dynamics of the international drug trade that extends through North Korea. Authorities have suspected for years that state-owned factories are used to make meth on an industrial scale. But now it appears the North Korean regime is outsourcing the work to transnational drug cartels, allowing them to operate with impunity inside the hermit kingdom in exchange for a cut of the action.
"The overwhelming preponderance of evidence points to official North Korean involvement," said Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit activity in North Korea. "The triads, the Yakuza in Japan — the question is one of control. I don't think North Korea exercises much if any control over these groups. It's an arrangement for mutual benefit, and it lasts as long as it's convenient for both sides."
TONS OF BINGDU
North Korea's participation in the illicit drug trade dates back at least to the 1970s. After defaulting on international debt, former leader Kim Il-sung (grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong-un) reportedly ordered his embassies to become self-sufficient, and so diplomats exploited their legal immunity and began smuggling hash and heroin. But by the early '90s, a number of DPRK diplomatic personnel had been busted and booted from their host nations, forcing the regime to change tactics.
At about the same time, meth started to become increasingly popular in the United States and Asia as economic collapse and famine gripped North Korea, creating the perfect storm incentivizing North Korea to produce the drug themselves. A 2007 report to Congress describes how Kim Jong-il created an agency called "Bureau 39" to oversee all "crime-for-profit activity" in the country, including illicit drugs, counterfeit currency, and contraband cigarettes. Massive pharmaceutical factories staffed by trained scientists were repurposed into meth labs capable of churning out bingdu, North Korean slang for meth, by the ton. Police intercepted large North Korean drug shipments destined for the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and elsewhere.
'There's no such thing as organized crime in North Korea that doesn't involve the government. Crime is disobeying the leadership. It's a Sopranos state.'
"These are high-quality, chemically pure shipments that are professionally packaged and shipped in large quantities," Greitens told VICE News. "That's been the defining trait of North Korean meth seizures since the late '90s."
In early 2006, North Korea staged a public crackdown on meth. The regime issued a decree announcing that all drug offenders would be sentenced to death regardless of their "status, services, or achievements." Meth is still common — defectors have described a grim, surreal world where bingdu is used as medicine for headaches — but international seizures have tapered off. In a report to Congress last year, the State Department stated there were "no confirmed instances of large-scale drug trafficking" involving North Korea in 2010, and "if such activity persists, it is certainly on a smaller scale."
But David Asher, a former advisor to the National Security Council who helped develop the US strategy against Kim Jong-il's illicit activities, suspects the public crackdown was all for show. More likely, Asher says, it was a move to consolidate power.
"There's no such thing as organized crime in North Korea that doesn't involve the government," Asher says. "Crime is disobeying the leadership. They passed a law solely to fool the West, and passed it in order to control the business internally to make sure people who were in the party weren't operating behind the back of the leadership. It's a Sopranos state. If they find somebody going around the senior leadership, that person gets whacked."
The ongoing DEA investigation suggests the meth trade is still thriving in North Korea and is still ultimately controlled by the regime. The difference now is exemplified by men like Ye Tiong Tan Lim, a slight, balding 53-year-old Chinese man with Coke-bottle glasses. According to court documents, Lim and his 41-year-old Filipino associate told the DEA informant that their bosses in Hong Kong had exclusive access to meth manufactured in North Korea.
"It's only us who can get from NK," Lim said, according to his indictment. "The NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed…. To show Americans that they are not selling it any more, they burned it. Then they transfer [the meth] to another base."
Lim allegedly claimed his organization had squirreled away a ton of North Korean meth somewhere in the Philippines. He emphasized that the supply was limited for the time being due to the political situation in North Korea.
"We cannot get things out from North Korea right now," Lim said. "We already anticipated this thing would happen between America, Korea, North Korea, South Korea, Japan — all the satellites are now — we cannot bring out our goods right now."
DEA informants agreed to buy 100 kilos from Lim, who believed the load would then be sent to New York. Orchestrating a drug shipment that large and complex requires serious logistics and security planning, so the DEA enlisted the help of another gang in Thailand.
That's where Rambo came in.
Last September, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging five former elite American and European military snipers with conspiring to import cocaine for a Colombian cartel, and for plotting to assassinate a DEA agent. Preet Bharara, the US Attorney in Manhattan, described the men as "an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends." The case, he said, was "ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel."
That makes the main character 48-year-old Joseph Manuel Hunter, a.k.a. Rambo. A former US Army sniper instructor and senior drill sergeant, Hunter has a bald head and the build of a middle linebacker. According to court documents, Hunter retired from the Army in 2004 and recruited a team of elite soldiers to work for him as a band of murderers-for-hire. Undercover DEA agents posing as Colombian drug lords last year hired Hunter as their head of security.
The indictment in Hunter's case makes no mention of North Korean meth, but DEA sources told VICE News that the cases are intertwined. Hunter is charged with conspiring to import cocaine, not methamphetamine, but documents in Hunter's case and Lim's case both describe two very similar, highly sophisticated smuggling rings based in Thailand. Both investigations began in January of 2013 and unfold along similar timelines.
Jerika Richardson, spokeswoman for the US Attorney in Manhattan, declined to answer questions about Hunter and the North Korean case. According to a senior DEA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't allowed to discuss an ongoing investigation, Hunter's organization offered contract killings as a "bonus service." Their primary role was akin to that of a subcontractor, guarding and smuggling drugs and weapons on behalf of various transnational criminal groups.
That sounds suspiciously similar to the services allegedly offered to an undercover DEA agent by Scott Stammers, a 44-year-old British man living in Thailand.
According to court documents, the DEA's informant hired Stammers to be the middleman in charge of moving Lim's meth from Southeast Asia to New York. Stammers was initially skeptical about the deal, telling the DEA's informant that North Korean meth is "expensive first of all, and it's so hard to get in."
Stammers eventually agreed to participate, however, and soon introduced the DEA informant to Phillip Shackles, another Englishman who allegedly had experience moving DPRK meth. Documents show that Shackles sent the DEA informant emails that used "DVDs" as a code word for meth. Shackles claimed he knew someone that "used to work in North Korea making DVDs," and said he had "good connects there for buying huge amounts."
'Once you become involved, you remain addicted to the trade. Why would North Korea close down a profitable industry if they can get away with it?'
The notion of outsiders entering North Korea to manufacture meth seems improbable, but it's not unprecedented. In 2011, an FBI investigation dubbed Smoking Dragon —government agents must have a great time naming their operations — targeted a Chinese black-market merchant in Los Angeles named Yi Qing Chen. In addition to peddling anti-aircraft missiles and other arms, Chen sold knockoff cigarettes, counterfeit $100 bills, and extremely pure methamphetamine — all North Korean specialties.
Bob Hamer, a former FBI agent and the lead undercover investigator in Smoking Dragon, recalled how Chen was rounding up investors to finance a meth superlab in North Korea that would eventually be converted into a laundry-detergent factory. Hamer described a sort of leasing agreement with corrupt North Korean officials, and said he was even offered a tour of the facility.
"We had a detailed scenario about where it would go and how we'd set up this factory," Hamer told VICE News. "They made it pretty clear to me that nothing was happening in North Korea without people in authority knowing it was happening and allowing it to happen."
98 PERCENT PURE
On April 5, 2013 Shackles and Stammers received two samples of North Korean meth allegedly supplied by Lim. One was "clear and bigger shards and harder to break," according to Stammers' description in court documents, and the other was "whiter and in smaller granules." The samples tested 96 percent and 98 percent pure, respectively. The following week, Stammers sent another message saying his bosses sought to contact "the NK supplier," and inquiring about "prices and manufacturing quantities/capabilities."
After the DEA negotiated to buy 100 kilos from Lim, Shackles and Stammers allegedly arranged for a man named Adrian Valkovic to serve as "ground commander," overseeing the shipment when it arrived in Thailand. A tall and intimidating Eastern European with tattoos poking out of his collar and sleeves, Valkovic used a pseudonym, and introduced himself as the sergeant-at-arms of the "Outlaw Motorcycle Club." He promised eight men from his gang to help with transportation, repackaging, logistics, and security.
On August 16, undercover DEA agents met with two of Hunter's alleged assassins in Thailand. The men plotted a hit on a DEA agent and his source in Liberia, a shipping hub for drugs in West Africa. They planned to make the murder "look like a bad robbery," and disguise themselves using "highly sophisticated latex face masks" that, according to the prosecutors, "can make the wearer appear to be of another race."
The following day, also in Thailand, DEA informants met with Shackles, Stammers, and Valkovic. As a cover for the incoming drug shipment, they planned to host a party or photo shoot on a yacht docked at a marina near a large US Naval Base. Lim's organization had already sent along 4,700 kilos of tea on a "test run" to ensure the real load went through smoothly. They didn't realize the DEA was watching every move.
Hunter was arrested on September 25 after DEA agents pointed him out to Thai police at a country club in the southern province of Phuket. Valkovic was arrested November 19 in Thailand, and the rest of the group was taken into custody the following day. All were extradited to New York, and are currently detained, awaiting trial. At a subsequent hearing in Manhattan, prosecutors described more than 100 gigabytes of digital evidence in the case, including emails, recorded phone calls, and undercover video footage. Citing the need to protect witnesses and maintain "the confidentiality of ongoing investigations," prosecutors requested unusually tight restrictions on pretrial evidence in Lim's case. Last month, they got it in the form of a "protective order pertaining to discovery." The reason given was that the evidence includes "certain materials that, if disseminated to third parties, could, among other things, pose a threat to public safety and the safety of witnesses, and could impede ongoing investigations."
As the cases proceed and more evidence is made public, North Korea watchers say they will be looking closely for further insight into the current state of drug trafficking in the reclusive regime. Raphael Perl, author of a detailed 2007 Congressional report on North Korean illicit activity, suspects North Korean officials are still directly involved with manufacturing and exporting meth, though the activity is now likely done in concert with organized crime groups.
"Once you become involved, you remain addicted to the trade," Perl says. "It's a whole military hierarchy that's involved in both the distribution and production of methamphetamine. It's a big time industry. Why would they close down a profitable industry if they can get away with it?"
Combine the secrecy of drug cartels with the secrecy North Korean government, and it becomes virtually impossible to know the full extent of the regime's involvement with meth production. The recent cases in New York offer just an idea. Although Lim, Hunter, and their alleged co-conspirators are now behind bars, the limited evidence available suggests they each belonged to larger crime organizations that presumably remain in business and still have access to a steady supply of ultra-pure North Korean bingdu.
Although the DEA seized a few kilos during the course of their investigation, the one-ton stockpile in the Philippines described by Lim remains unaccounted for.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton