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North Korea plying its drugs in Japan

TOKYO — When the rusty fishing boat arrived from China via North Korea for an offshore rendezvous, its crew got an unwelcome surprise — it was boarded and searched by the Japanese Coast Guard.

Peeling back a wooden panel to reveal a hidden compartment, officers found 10 boxes containing more than 330 pounds of North Korean methamphetamines, a potent stimulant that has long been the illegal drug of choice for abusers in Japan.

In desperate need of money to pay for its huge army and expensive nuclear and conventional weapons development programs — not to mention feed its people — North Korea has found a lucrative source of funds in Japanese drug addicts, experts contend.

"It's nothing less than state-organized crime — to feed the Japanese stimulants and put them out of commission," opposition lawmaker Takeshi Hidaka said at a recent hearing of parliament's national security committee.

Japan's illegal stimulant market, estimated at more than $9.3 billion annually, is an attractive target for North Korea. Largely cut off from the rest of the world, North Korea's economy has been verging on collapse for years, weighed down by the big military budget, limited technology and little external trade.

Methamphetamines offer an easy fix. The drugs can be manufactured relatively easily and cheaply in labs and transported to Japanese users at little risk because Japan's long coastline is hard to guard.

The latest customs figures say 2,473 pounds of methamphetamines from North Korea were seized in the three years through 2001. That was second only to China, at 3,916 pounds.

"We believe North Korea is capable of mass producing top-quality stimulants," said Naoto Takeuchi, an anti-narcotics official at the National Police Agency. "There could be a government agency behind it."

Because outsiders have very little access to North Korea, proving the communist regime in Pyongyang is directly involved in the drug trade is difficult.

"We have no evidence to prove Pyongyang's role in the smuggling, although we believe it is possibly run systematically by a large organization," said Minoru Hanai at the Japan Coast Guard's International Criminal Investigation Division. "We don't know where exactly in North Korea the drug factories are located."

The capture of the rusty smuggling boat off Kyushu just over a year ago was typical of what Japan is up against.

Though all crew members aboard were Chinese, one testified that the drugs were taken aboard in waters just west of Pyongyang. The drugs were almost certainly to be sold to Japanese gangsters, who closely control the domestic narcotics trade.

Tokyo has set up an anti-smuggling team to improve coordination between the Coast Guard, the National Police Agency, the health ministry and customs agents.

But because Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, trying to get the North's government — which denies the problem exists — to crack down is impossible.

"Drug smuggling is a crucial source of income for North Korea," said Toshio Miyatsuka, a North Korea specialist at Yamanashi Gakuin University. "It's a major threat for Japan, and is definitely a destabilizing factor for the Japanese society and in the region."

Miyatsuka said smuggling follows economic trends in North Korea: When times are hard, it falls back more heavily on the drug trade.

North Korea's smuggling began to surge when its economy turned worse in the 1990s, he said, adding that profits are generally used in arms development.

He said several expensive events last year in North Korea, including leader Kim Jong Il's 60th birthday and the Arirang Festival, a mass-games extravaganza intended to rival South Korea's co-hosting of soccer's World Cup, also could have prompted a recent rise in drug shipments.

Most of the trade seems to be taking place in the triangle of water in the Yellow and East China seas between Japan, Taiwan and North Korea.

In the summer of 2001, Taiwanese authorities seized more than 154 pounds of heroin in those waters from a smuggling ring that had links to North Korea.

Cracking down has a price.

Late in 2001, two Coast Guard sailors were wounded in a gunbattle with a suspicious vessel in the southwestern waters. Before the vessel could be boarded, an explosion ripped through its hull and it sank. All 15 aboard were presumed dead.

After salvaging the vessel last September, Japan determined it was a North Korean spy ship and probably was the same boat caught smuggling drugs in 1998 off the southwestern Japanese island of Shikoku.

On the Net:

State Department report on international narcotics control: