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North Korea Apologizes After Diplomat Caught Smuggling $1.4M of Gold into Bangladesh

While Bangladesh has a burgeoning gold smuggling problem, this is first time so far that a diplomat has been publicly involved.

by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
Mar 10 2015, 6:42pm

Photo by Ariel Palmon

North Korea's diplomat to Bangladesh has been forced to apologize after a senior colleague was caught red-handed attempting to smuggle gold into the country last week. 

Son Young Nam, the first secretary of the North Korean Embassy in Dhaka, left Bangladesh on Sunday night, having been apprehended late on March 5 trying to bring 27 kilograms (almost 60 lbs) of gold, worth around $1.4 million, into the country.

After being reportedly summoned by Bangladesh's foreign ministry, North Korean ambassador Ri Song Hyon apologized for the incident on Monday.

On the night of March 5, Son was stopped by customs officials in Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, soon after he landed on a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore.

When customs officials wanted to scan his bag, Son initially resisted claiming diplomatic immunity. Armed police personnel recovered the haul in the form of around bars and other pieces soon afterwards. Police Superintendent Tanjina Akter told Bdnews24: "There was nothing but gold in the bag."

Nam was released the next afternoon by customs officials. "We can not take steps against foreign diplomats as per the Vienna Convention," said Customs Joint Commissioner Kazi Mohammad Zia Uddin.

He was then asked by the Bangladeshi government to exit the country. "We have asked him to leave, as he is a diplomat with [legal] immunity," Mohammad Shahidul Haque, foreign ministry secretary, told VICE News.

Under the Vienna Convention, Son cannot be prosecuted in a host country's court unless his government waives his diplomatic immunity.

However, a set of sanctions on Pyongyang, approved by United Nations Security Council in March 2013, restricted the movement of money as part of penalties on North Korean banking, travel, trade, the export of certain goods, and so on.

The 2013 sanctions were passed hours after North Korea threatened for the first time to launch a nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea. A month prior to the sanctions, Pyongyang carried out its third underground nuclear test.

According to the local media, the Bangladeshi foreign ministry conveyed a request to North Korea for them withdraw the erring diplomat, prosecute him for the offence on his return home, and keep Bangladesh informed about the action.

The ministry was also assured that he will be prosecuted for the offence after he reaches North Korea.

Bangladesh also cautioned the North Korean ambassador that stern actions will be taken against any embassy staff found involved in such crimes in future.

Related: Gold smuggling in Bangladesh is at an all-time high — and its flagship airline is involved. Read more here.

According to Moinul Khan, director general of the custom intelligence department, this is the first time a diplomat has been involved with gold smuggling in Bangladesh. But it has been a matter of major concern in the country over the past two years.

Even on Tuesday, around 932 grams of gold in the form of eight bars were recovered from inside a video game console box at the same airport by customs officials. The gold, worth around $65,000, was reportedly flown from Dubai to Dhaka.

On March 4, customs authorities at Hazrat Shahjalal airport seized around 18.5 kilograms of gold bars from a toilet inside a Regent Airways plane. A week prior to this, on February 25, customs officials recovered another 161 gold bars, weighing 18 kilograms from two passengers who had landed from Dubai.

Between July 2013 and December 2014, more than 750 kilograms of gold was seized from planes and passengers at Bangladesh's airports, worth a total of $36 million.

Gold smuggling to Bangladesh and other South Asian countries, including Nepal, Pakistan, and Bhutan, has increased ever since the Indian government raised the tariff on gold imports to 10 percent in August 2013, smugglers saw their chance for huge profits.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons