The 8 Crazy Ways North Korea Makes Money Despite Sanctions

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In case you’re not paying attention North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. As usual, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Continuing to develop of nuclear missiles that threaten the United States. A bold assassination of the half-brother of leader Kim Jong Un. The lavish diet and creature comforts he enjoys while most North Koreans go hungry.
Whether or not Kim is crazy enough to actually launch a missile is debatable. What isn’t up for debate is that North Korea continues finding ways to fund its nuclear ambitions. Sanctions aren’t keeping North Korea from making enough money to build nuclear weapons. This is how the country does it.

1. Coal

Coal production at one of the open fields in the south of Siberia
North Korea is all about the black market.  
Yes, China pumped the brakes on importing North Korean coal early in 2017, and Reuters reports coal, lead, and iron imports to China from North Korea dropped drastically. Yet many experts believe the country is still making money by selling coal to its neighbor to the north. How? By engaging in off-the-books trade that is harder to trace. 

2. Counterfeiting

american dollar bills
North Korea has been counterfeiting Chinese currency as well. 
If you can’t legally make money, why not just fake it? That’s North Korea’s thinking. In 2009, a man was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison for successfully passing millions of dollars of counterfeit bills in Las Vegas casinos. It wasn’t an isolated case. That same year, a Taiwanese woman shipped close to $400,000 in counterfeit U.S. currency to herself. She was caught by the FBI, but only after smuggling and spending thousands of dollars of counterfeit money. It’s not just U.S. currency that’s being faked, as United Press International writes that Chinese currency is being printed in North Korea. 

3. Cybercrime

They’re stealing money through hacking. 
It is believed North Korea launched a 2014 hack on Sony Pictures. British intelligence believes North Korea launched a malware attack that hit a number of hospitals and health centers, and CNBC reports the country was behind a cyberheist that saw $81 million disappear from Bangladesh’s central bank. Even when not stealing money or crashing computer systems, North Korea is lurking on networks and learning weaknesses in preparation for another attack, according to The Diplomat

4. Friends

Ancient city of Yazd in sunrise lights. Iran
It is believed that Iran shares nuclear information.  
The off-the-books coal and mineral trade with China is just one way North Korea makes money. Sympathetic nationals and other pariah states are helping it get the cash and resources it needs. David Thompson, writing for the non-profit C4ADS, spotlights the case of Chinese citizen Fan Mintian, caught attempting to smuggle weapons from Cuba to North Korea, and that is just one case of foreign citizens helping. It is believed Iran, another enemy of the United States, and North Korea share nuclear information and resources. 

5. Heroin

heroin
They’re the third largest heroin producer. 
That North Korea has been refining and distributing heroin around the world is an open secret. The Australian navy seized a North Korean ship transporting more than 100 kilograms of the drug in 2003. In fact, U.S. officials say the country is the world’s third-leading heroin producer behind Afghanistan and Burma, and the CIA calls out North Korean diplomats for engaging in heroin trafficking on a regular basis.   

6. Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine
North Korea makes its money off of addicts. 
As we’ve just seen, North Korea uses the heroin trade to make some off-the-books money. It seems one drug isn’t enough, as the country sends methamphetamine around the globe. The U.S. Department of Justice convicted three international conspirators of attempting to import 100 kilograms of North Korea-produced meth in 2015. That was three years after the same trio sold 30 kilos of the substance. The narcotics North Korea produces are in addition to fake pharmaceuticals, like Viagra, it makes. 

7. Slave labor

Enslaved person
They have been profiting off of enslaved labor and sex slavery. 
The Workers’ Party of Korea is the political party running North Korea, and slave labor within the country has long been utilized. Apparently, it is also an export. Citizens up to the task work jobs overseas, with handlers watching their every move. Wages are mostly or entirely skimmed and the workers receive nothing, or close to it. A CNN report claims this scam brings in more than $1 billion annually. 

8. Weapons

Chemical weapons
North Korea attempted to smuggle chemical weapons to Syria 
Because of sanctions, North Korea should not be importing or exporting weapons, but that hurdle has been easy to overcome. Through years of unchecked trading, it stockpiled cash and other resources, which it uses to manufacture its own weapons. When there’s a surplus, it sells those weapons out to the highest bidder. In one incident, North Korea was caught trying to smuggle chemical weapons to Syria. If you’re not keeping track of world affairs, that’s one shady and generally-despised government trying to help out another one.

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