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U.S.: North Korea drug role likely

The North Korean freighter Pong Su was seized by Australia last year.
The North Korean freighter Pong Su was seized by Australia last year.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States has said for the first time that it believes it is "highly likely" North Korea deals in illegal drugs as a matter of state policy.

The comments in a State Department report Monday are the harshest to date by the Bush administration about suspicions that the government of the isolated, impoverished nation directs trade in heroin and methamphetamine for profit.

U.S. President George W. Bush has called North Korea part of an "axis of evil" along with Iran and pre-war Iraq and his aides accuse Pyongyang of pursuing nuclear weapons that they view as a direct threat to South Korea, a key U.S. ally.

The accusations of official involvement in the drug trade may raise tensions as Washington seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions and they follow U.S. criticism of North Korea's human rights record last week.

Nuclear talks in Beijing last week ended only with an agreement for more talks. (Full story)

In its International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the State Department cited as evidence of North Korea's probable role in the drug trade Australia's seizure last April of the Pong Su -- a ship owned by a North Korean firm that allegedly carried up to 125 kg (275 pounds) of heroin to Australia.

It also cited an unnamed defector as saying that poppy cultivation as well as heroin and methamphetamine production are carried out in North Korea by order of the authorities.

"State trading of narcotics is a conspiracy between officials at the highest levels of the ruling party/government and their subordinates to cultivate, manufacture and/or traffic narcotics with impunity through the use of, but not limited to, state-owned assets," the report said.

"Law enforcement cases over the years have not only clearly established that North Korean diplomats, military officers, and other party/government officials have been involved in the smuggling of narcotics, but also that state-owned assets, particularly ships, have been used to facilitate and support international drug trafficking ventures," it added.

Smuggling incidents

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"The Pong Su seizure and numerous drug smuggling incidents linked to North Korea over the past several decades reflect official involvement in the trafficking of (drugs) for profit and make it high likely, but not certain, that Pyongyang is trading narcotic drugs for profit as state policy," it said.

North Korea has denied involvement in the drug trade, calling such accusations part of a U.S. "smear" campaign.

In last year's report the Department was much more muted in its language, raising questions about whether the North Korean government had a hand in drug trafficking but saying it had not been able to determine to what extent this was the case.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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