Hong Soon-kyung, who fled his job at North Korea’s Thai embassy in 2000, admitted that the regime flouted international law by trading rhino horn.
Its embassies in Africa were buying the grisly souvenirs from poachers, he said, then smuggling it to China in diplomatic bags, which are rarely searched.
Once in Asia, the sick trophies fetch up to $40,000 (£32,500) per kilogram — making them a valued source of foreign currency for the party chiefs in Pyongyang.
“One of our most iconic species faces extinction in the not too distant future”
And the problem’s not limited to Africa; Mr Hong told Daily Star Online that black market cash was funding North Korean embassies around the world.
He said: “We do not get any payment or any kind of support from the North Korean regime, so how would the diplomats make a living?
“What they do is illegal trading. What I did, for example, is smuggled tax-free alcohol and cigarettes, and sold them.
“In Africa they sell material such as rhino horn and teak to China, and that’s the way they gain money.”
He continued: “The embassies have to make a living because they don’t get any funding from North Korea.
“The people working in the embassies are not at fault; it’s the fault of the regime because without funds, they don’t have a way of living.”
In a recent report, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime detailed an incident where two North Koreans were caught in the act.
Diplomat Pak Chol-jun and a Taekwondo master Kim Jong-su were stopped in Maputo, Mozambique, with 4.5kg of rhino horn, worth up to $180,000 (£147,000) on the black market.
They were released just 24 hours later and their vehicle was returned to them; ultimately both men returned to North Korea and neither faced criminal charges.
The report’s author, South Africa-based journalist Julian Rademeyer, found 29 cases where diplomats smuggled rhino horn — 16 involving North Koreans.
He told Daily Star Online that none of these cases ended in prosecution, making rhino horn smuggling the “perfect crime” for dodgy diplomats.
He said: “[Smuggling horn] is less risky than some of the other illegal activities that Pyongyang has been accused of in the past like drug smuggling.
“In some ways it’s a softer crime and, for diplomats with a criminal bent, it’s in many ways the perfect crime, because they’re covered by diplomatic immunity.
“You’re also unlikely to find any police who would be willing to incur the wrath of their government or become embroiled in a diplomatic incident by searching a diplomat’s bag.”
When Mr Rademeyer went to confront the North Korean embassy in Pretoria, diplomats lashed out at him and his cameraman, and even pelted their car with small stones.
“They tried to snatch the camera and grab documents out of my hand,” he said. “I think the reaction was pretty extraordinary — these are diplomats.”
Daily Star Online has already revealed how the last leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, ordered lion penis be brought to him as a sex aid.
But rhino horn seldom ends up in the secretive state; today it’s typically sold in China and Vietnam – either whole or carved – as a status symbol.
“The cost to Africa is that you have one of our most iconic species facing the possibility of extinction in the not too distant future,” said Mr Rademeyer.
“There’s also a very real human cost in terms of rangers who’ve lost their lives and you also have large numbers of suspected poachers being killed.”
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