Pretoria - A high-ranking North Korean diplomat accused of abusing his diplomatic immunity and his embassy’s diplomatic bag to smuggle rhino horn out of South Africa has been expelled from the country.
News24 has learnt that Park Chol-jun – also identified in some news reports as Pak Chol Chun - quietly left the country on December 11.
A spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco), Nelson Kgwete, did not name Park, but confirmed on Tuesday that the department had been "informed by the embassy" that "the official has returned" to North Korea.
News24 understands that the South African government last month gave Park – the embassy’s political councillor - a 30-day ultimatum to leave the country.
The North Korean embassy did not respond to emailed questions.
News24 first submitted questions about the expulsion to Dirco on 8 December - three days before Park left the country - but the department failed to respond for two weeks.
Park was arrested on May 3 in the Mozambican capital Maputo after 4.5kg of rhino horn and $99 300 in cash were found in a vehicle in which he was travelling. The car had diplomatic licence plates and was registered to the North Korean embassy in Pretoria.
Also allegedly arrested was a man identified as a respected North Korean Taekwon-Do master, Kim Jong Su.
'He said it definitely didn’t happen'
A Maputo police spokesperson, Orlando Mudumane, said the men were subsequently released on $30 000 bail. According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, Park and Kim returned to South Africa by land shortly afterwards.
Kim, 54, has been actively involved in the Taekwon-Do Federation of Africa (TFA) – which is based in Pretoria - for several years.
According to the federation’s website, he has conducted several seminars in South Africa and Mozambique since 2004. At the time of the arrests, he was employed by the TFA as an instructor and director of its technical and umpire committee.
Contacted on Wednesday, the Federation’s president, Pretoria High Court Judge Annali Basson, referred queries to the North Korean embassy.
Her son Andre, the TFA’s legal advisor, later told News24 that the Federation had confronted Kim with the allegations earlier this year.
"He said it definitely didn’t happen. That he was not arrested. We have to take his word for it, unless we get evidence that he was involved."
Basson, who said he was "utterly shocked" by the allegations, said the Federation would have to "dissociate" itself from Kim "if it’s true".
He said Kim had flown to North Korea in "late October or early November" to "visit family" and had planned to return to South Africa next year.
Quoting a "South Korean embassy source", news agency UPI reported at the time of the arrests that "North Koreans regularly access the land route to Mozambique, in order to acquire horns of protected wildlife".
"The revenue is needed, the source said, to keep the North Korean mission in operation, and the horns are sent to China where they are sold as medicine in the black market."
Embassies used to operate 'criminal empire'
According to NK News.org, a website that monitors events in North Korea, Pyongyang "poured military and financial resources into Africa [from the mid-1960 to the late 1990s], hoping to sway newly independent countries to recognise the leadership in Pyongyang as the official representative of the Korean people".
It also established dozens of embassies, which quickly became a financial burden. When funds dried up, Pyongyang issued an edict that embassies become financially self-reliant.
There are mounting allegations that North Korea uses its embassies to operate a "criminal empire". Earlier this year, a North Korean diplomat was caught smuggling 25kg of gold – worth an estimated $1m - from Singapore to Bangladesh. Other North Korean diplomats and embassies have been linked to drug, weapons and cigarette smuggling, money laundering and the distribution of fake US dollars.
The exposure of a senior North Korean diplomat’s involvement in rhino horn trafficking is the fourth diplomatic scandal of its kind on record in South Africa in the past nine years.
In 2006, police uncovered evidence that Nguyen Khanh Toan, the economic attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, was using his diplomatic immunity and the embassy’s diplomatic bag to smuggle rhino horn out of South Africa. He was quietly recalled to Hanoi.
In April 2008, a Port Elizabeth jeweller of Vietnamese origin, Tommy Tuan, was arrested in a police sting in Kimberley while trying to buy ten rhino horns from an undercover police operative. At the time of his arrest, Tuan was driving a Vietnamese embassy car with diplomatic plates registered to Pham Cong Dung, the political counsellor. In March 2010, Tuan was convicted and fined R200 000. He left South Africa shortly afterwards.
Later that year, Vu Moch Ahn, the embassy’s first secretary was secretly filmed receiving rhino horns from a dealer outside the embassy in Brooklyn. She was also quietly recalled after protests from the South African authorities.
Evidence of North Korean involvement in the illegal rhino horn trade is certain to set off alarm bells in the international conservation community.
Both North and South Korea trafficked rhino horn and ivory in the 1980s and 1990s, but the recent crisis has largely been attributed to demand in Vietnam and China, where a kilogram of rhino horn can fetch black market prices of between $65 000 and $100 000.
The exact nature of North Korea’s current involvement in the rhino horn trade remains unclear, however this is not the first time that North Korean embassy staff have been implicated.
In 1989, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) produced a damning report accusing North Korean diplomats based in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare of being "deeply implicated in the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade".
As early as 1985, there were reports that ivory and rhino horn smuggling were among the "many illicit activities which North Korean embassies undertake because their embassies have to be self-financing".
The EIA’s 1989 report stated that "[v]irtually the entire staff of the diplomatic missions of North Korea [in Zimbabwe and Zambia] are involved in the illegal rhino horn trade", with "70% to 80% of the rhino horn traded by the North Korean embassy in Harare said to originate from rhinos killed in Zimbabwe".
That attention now appears to have shifted to South Africa, home to 73% of the world’s last remaining rhinos.
Poachers have killed more than a thousand rhinos in South Africa so far this year. Since 2008, at least 4 600 rhinos have fallen to poachers' bullets, seventeen times the number poached in the preceding 27 years.
A recent study has warned that if poaching rates continue at their current levels, the white rhino population in the Kruger National Park will "plummet" from an estimated 8 900 animals to between "2879 and 3263 individuals… by 2018".
South Africa has diplomatic ties with North Korea, although the exact nature of its relationship with Pyongyang remains opaque.
Last year, South Africa – along with Cuba, China, Belarus, Ecuador, Venezuela, Russia, and Iran - voted against a motion in the United Nations to take diplomatic and legal action against North Korea over continued human rights abuses that include mass murder, rape, forced abortions, torture, and enslavement. The motion came against the backdrop of a 400-page UN report which concluded that the country’s appalling human rights track record "exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror".
Yolan Friedmann, CEO of South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust, welcomed news of Park’s expulsion, but said "not enough has been done".
"The involvement of diplomats in the rhino horn trade has been alleged for a long time. This has to be made more public. Why is it that kingpins are being hidden in embassies and that they are being protected? They need to be exposed and the embassies need to stop hiding kingpins.
"It is morally, completely wrong. Expulsion is one thing, but we need to see government being proactive and sending a clear message to embassies that they need to stop hiding kingpins."