- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The seizure of a North Korean ship suspected of smuggling a huge cache of heroin into Australia last month has increased U.S. fears Pyongyang is using drug and other illegal trade to finance its nuclear weapons program, a senior Pentagon official told Congress yesterday.

The capture of the Pong Su on April 20 by Australian security forces “heightens concerns that North Korean officials may be using illicit trading activities to provide much-needed hard currency to fund its army and weapons of mass destruction programs,” Andre D. Hollis, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics told a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing yesterday.

Noting Pyongyang’s record as a weapons proliferator, “any illicit trafficking involving North Korea is a potential threat to the security of the U.S. and its friends and allies in Asia and elsewhere,” Mr. Hollis said.

William Bach, director of African, Asian and European affairs at the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said his office has not definitively concluded that the North Korean government sanctioned the illegal drug program, but said it was unlikely to be a rogue operation.

“It is very hard to imagine any entity other than the North Korean state undertaking trafficking on the scale and operational complexity” of the Pong Su shipment, he said.

The Pong Su was caught after trying to transfer approximately 110 pounds of heroin, with an estimated street value of $80 million, into a fishing boat off the coast of Australia. An Australian newspaper reported Monday that one of the 26 men detained in the Pong Su incident was a member of the North Korean ruling party who served as senior envoy in Pyongyang’s embassy in Beijing.

Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, the Illinois Republican who chaired yesterday’s hearing, said the evidence linking North Korean drug sales and its weapons programs is overwhelming.

“Given the nexus between its state-level drug production and trafficking business and its weapons programs, North Korea is essentially a crime syndicate with nuclear bombs,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.

A witness described only as a “former North Korean high-ranking government official,” entering the hearing room in a black hood and testifying from behind a phalanx of black screens, told the Senate hearing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il himself personally designated an area in North Korea’s Hamkyung Province as an experimental poppy farm for opium in the late 1980s, when the country was starved for hard cash.

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