North Korea and massive amounts of lab-grade meth? Check. Multinational drug-smuggling syndicate? Check. Former U.S. soldier turned globe-trotting hitman? Check. This story in the Washington Post this morning has it all:
Five men have been charged with conspiracy to import 100 kilograms of nearly pure North Korean-produced methamphetamine into the United States, and federal officials said the case illustrates the emergence of North Korea as a player in the global drug trade.
The men were part of a sprawling international drug trafficking ring led by a former American soldier, Joseph Manuel Hunter .... The five men — including British, Chinese and Philippine nationals — were arrested in Phuket, Thailand, in September and were extradited to the United States on Tuesday night. They appeared in federal court in New York on Wednesday.
According to the U.S. government, the Hong Kong-based crime syndicate agreed to provide 100 kilograms of meth—at $60,000 a kilo—to a man who they believed was a drug trafficker but who was, you guessed it, working with the DEA. During their dealings with the agency informant, the suspects allegedly divulged plenty of the tricks of their nefarious trade, with one allegedly boasting that the group had stockpiled more than one ton of North Korean-made meth in the Philippines in advance of an apparent government crackdown on production in the Hermit Kingdom. The plan—which the group appears to have tested first with a "dry run" of tea leaves—was to move the drugs on to Thailand, and then smuggle them on to the United States. The seized meth tested at more than 99 percent pure, according to the DEA.
If the name Joseph Hunter sounds familiar, it's because he has already been accused of conspiring to kill a DEA agent. (Although you might remember him better by his headline-ready nickname "Rambo.") After spending nearly two decades in the U.S. Army, the government claims the former sniper instructor left in 2004 to launch a new career as the leader of a group of contract killers that he personally recruited, and has since "arranged for the murders of multiple people," according to court papers.
In May, Hunter and two other ex-soldiers he recruited allegedly agreed to kill a DEA agent and a government informant for $800,000. Like the North Korean drug bust, however, the commissioning of those crimes was a sting carried out by federal informants. While negotiating the deal, one of Hunter's hitmen apparently boasted of how contact killing was "fun," adding: "I love this work."
Because North Korea is North Korea, not a lot is known about its internal drug trade, although there have been several dozen documented incidents of drug trafficking over the past several decades, mostly along its border with China. According to a 2007 report prepared for Congress, meth production became more popular in North Korea after poppy production failed due to extreme weather in the 1990s. There have also been a handful of unconfirmed stories suggesting the government is specifically involved in the production and smuggling of illicit drugs like heroin and meth, including one you-wouldn't-believe-it-if-it-weren't-North Korea report that claims that Kim Jong-un's government ordered its diplomats in a number of foreign embassies to sell illegal drugs on the streets.
While those and other reports haven't been confirmed, the U.S. State Department's official policy is more or less that anything's possible when we're talking about North Korea. "Despite the absence of reports of drug seizures linked directly to DPRK state institutions," the agency said in its most-recent International Narcotics Control Strategy report, "the United States cannot entirely rule out the possibility of official DPRK state involvement in the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs."