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CALABAR, Nigeria—The first ever legal auction of rhino horn began in South Africa late last month. John Hume, the owner of the world’s biggest private rhino herd, an online auction in which 264 horns were up for sale, and he will carry out a physical auction this month to sell even more. All this perfectly legally and in the name of funding conservation.
But one particularly notorious trader in the black-market bits of endangered animals could reap major benefits from this project: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The cash-strapped hermit kingdom often operates outside the laws and norms of the international community, whether launching missiles, building nukes, or churning out counterfeit currency. And numerous cases show us that North Korean officials in southern Africa have a huge appetite for the region’s endangered species. They’ve been involved in illegal poaching and selling of rhino horns in the area for decades—long before Kim came into power.
But the business appears to have grown dramatically since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father and grandfather as Supreme Leader in 2011.
One major seizure occurred in October 2012, when a North Korean diplomat named Kim Jong Guk was caught by Mozambican customs officials as he tried to smuggle around 130 pieces of ivory, valued at around $36,000, out of the country.
In 2014, a report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (PDF) accused North Korean diplomats of earning hard currency for its nuclear and missile programs through illicit trading of wildlife.
Another finding on the illicit trade (PDF), published a year ago by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, showed that North Korean diplomats have been implicated in more than half of the cases of illegal trading of rhinoceros horns and elephant tusks involving embassy officials stationed in Africa since 1989. Of the 29 seizures of contraband horns and tusks in the period, 16 have involved North Koreans. The highest profile cases happened after Kim took office.
In May 2015, Pak Chol Jun, the political counsellor at the North Korean embassy in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, was arrested in Maputo in neighboring Mozambique alongside a so-called martial arts teacher, Kim Jong Su, in possession of close to $100,000 in cash and 4.5 kilos of rhino horn. Both men were later released after posting $30,000 bail. On returning to Pretoria, Pak—who was the second highest ranking North Korean representative in southern Africa—came under scrutiny from the local media. He was expelled later in the year by South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).
Last year, United Press International (UPI) learned that North Koreans regularly travel to Mozambique to acquire horns. As a South Korean embassy source told UPI, the horns are then transported to China where they are sold as medicine on the black market. At the time of the arrests in 2015, the horns or products made from them could have sold for as much as $270,000.
Global Initiative was told by diplomatic and government sources in South Africa that the North Korean embassy in Pretoria is “actively involved in smuggling ivory and rhino horn.” The organization said there are allegations that the North Korean embassy in Ethiopia capital, Addis Ababa, is being used as a transit point for the smuggling of illicit wildlife products to China, with officials in the embassy using their diplomatic status to act as couriers. The totalitarian state expects it diplomats to “earn enough money to supplement their paltry salaries and be able to make sizeable financial contributions to the central government in Pyongyang,” according to the Global Initiative report.
“It is likely that many more cases of diplomatic involvement in the illicit trade have gone undetected and unreported,” wrote Julian Rademeyer, the author of the report.
Beyond its illegal trade in rhino horns, the rogue nation hardly does globally accepted businesses with African nations. This has been the case especially since its current leader assumed office in December 2011.
Under Kim’s watchful eyes, North Korea has built arms factories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Uganda, and has been contracted to construct military sites in Namibia, according to a report by Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (PDF). Pyongyang has also supplied Sudan with sophisticated air-to-ground missiles that use satellite guidance systems, and signed a $6 million contract to supply surface-to-air missiles, radar and anti-tank armaments, an investigation by the United Nations revealed this year.
But some of these countries began to sever ties with North Korea after pressure mounted from the U.N. and the United States, which wanted African nations to isolate the reclusive nation as a result of its continued development of its nuclear and ballistic missile program. Even at that, the country still operates 11 embassies in Africa, and its officials still have their eyes on the continent’s endangered animals.
The involvement of the North Korean diplomats in southern Africa’s wildlife has contributed to a massive depletion of the continent’s rhinos. Global Initiative said last year that 6,000 rhinos have been poached since 2006. In 2015, a record 1,338 rhinos were killed by poachers across Africa, according to data compiled by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In South Africa—where 70 percent of the world’s remaining 29,500 white rhinos live—poachers slaughtered more than 1,050 rhinos last year, up from 13 in 2007, as demand for rhino horn increased drastically in Asia, where it’s carved used in folk medicine.
Hume’s auctions are not of poached horns, but of those from the animals he has raised and protected, and some measures have been taken to prevent their distribution to the Asian market. But the history of efforts to protect endangered wildlife shows that once the door is opened wide to legal sales, it opens that much wider to the black market trade.
A ban on buying and selling rhino horn within South Africa was imposed in 2009, but in 2015 Hume and another rhino horn breeder filed a lawsuit to overturn it. In April, a court ruled that domestic trade can resume, but trading in the international market that was banned in 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), remains prohibited.
Hume—who breeds and protects about 1,500 rhinos on his private ranch in South Africa’s north-western city of Klerksdorp—was handed a license to auction his rhino horns on August 20 after winning his court case against the South African government.
The breeder says he wants to auction his horns to “raise money to further fund the breeding and protection of rhinos,” as noted by rhinohornauction.com, the website that hosted the online auction.
The game farmer—who spends $170,000 a year on security for his rhinos—wrote on the website that a legal trade in rhino horn “is the best way to protect the rhino” and drive down the price of horn, which, as reported by National Geographic, can fetch $3,000 a pound on the black market in South Africa.
But the auction will be an opportunity for Kim to exploit, especially because it takes place in an area where North Korean officials are used to doing illicit trading.
Hume’s auction is meant solely for buyers in South Africa, but the domestic market for rhino horns there is virtually nonexistent. The market is in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and in China, and that is where the largest percentage of rhino horns from Africa—including those smuggled by North Korean diplomats—is headed.
“It’s difficult to see how a domestic rhino horn auction will do anything other than send confusing signals to the rest of the world,” Ross Harvey, an economist and senior researcher with the South African Institute of International Affairs, told National Geographic. “If South Africa’s domestic market is just about non-existent, one has to ask questions about who the buyers at this auction would sell their horns to.”
Hume—who has more than six tons of rhino horn kept in a secure holding—made sure the website for the auction had Vietnamese and Chinese language homepages, in addition to English. In those markets the horn could sell for up to $100,000 per kilogram, making it worth more than its weight in gold.
“Clearly Mr. Hume has a broader market in mind, and this calls into question his motive, in my mind, to sell horn,” Joseph Okori, head of the South Africa regional office for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote in a post on the organization’s website. “This is a matter of profit, not protection of one of the world’s most endangered species.”
The online auction started on August 23 and ended two days later with “fewer bidders and fewer sales than anticipated,” according to a statement from Hume’s lawyers.
Were those who did bid from North Korea? That information is not available. The in-person auction is on Sept. 19. Kim’s agents very likely will be there, but not identifying themselves as North Koreans.
As the man who breeds more rhinos than anyone in the world sells their horns, watch Kim Jong Un’s “masked men” in South Africa will do what they can to lay their hands on them.