New York (CNN) -- U.S. allegations that the North Korean government aids in or allows the illegal drug trade has long been an irritant in the tense relationship between the two countries. Now, a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that the U.S. says busted an international drug ring specializing in North Korean methamphetamine could bolster the U.S. claims.
Federal prosecutors announced charges Wednesday against five men who the DEA alleges ran a drug ring that distributed North Korean meth around in Southeast Asia.
The men, none of whom are American, were expelled from Thailand on Tuesday and brought to New York to face charges. They're part of a broader case that prosecutors unveiled in September, when the Manhattan U.S. attorney charged a group of ex-military men with planning killings in connection with drug trafficking.
The United States alleges those men, purportedly led by former U.S. Army sniper trainer Joseph "Rambo" Hunter, planned to assassinate a DEA agent and an informer in a sting operation.
The five men facing new charges unsealed Wednesday are British citizens Scott Stammers and Philip Shackels; Chinese citizen Ye Tiong Tan Lim; Kelly Allan Reyes Peralta of the Philippines; and Alexander Lnu, believed to be a Slovak resident of Thailand. They're charged with conspiring to import 100 kilograms of North Korean-produced methamphetamine into the United States.
The five appeared Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Kevin Nathaniel Fox in federal court in Manhattan. Shackels and Lnu sported tattoos on their arms. Lim, through an interpreter, asked for and received court permission for medication due to a kidney and high-cholesterol condition.
The men, represented by public defenders, all entered not-guilty pleas and agreed to be held without bail until their next court date on December 5.
U.S. prosecutors said methamphetamine seized in Thailand and the Philippines in 2012 and traced to the group tested at more than 99% pure.
"This investigation continued to highlight the emergence of North Korea as a significant source of methamphetamine in the global drug trade," said DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan said the case showed "our determination to close a potential floodgate of supply."
According to U.S. prosecutors, Lim and Reyes Peralta were members of a Hong Kong criminal group that sold over 30 kilograms of North Korean meth, which was the product later seized in Thailand and the Philippines in 2012. Stammers and Shackels allegedly were responsible for storing the meth sold by Lim and Reyes Peralta, authorities said.
DEA agents set up sting earlier this year that ensnared the men, according to federal authorities. Agents recorded video and audio of Lim and Reyes Peralta meeting with an undercover DEA informant beginning in January and allegedly agreeing to sell 100 kilograms of North Korean meth for sale in the U.S., authorities said.
According to recordings cited by prosecutors, Lim told the informant that his organization was the only one currently able to obtain methamphetamine from North Korea. "Because before, there were eight (other organizations). But now only us, we have the NK product. . . . (It's) only us who can get from NK."
According to federal court documents, Lim explained that because of U.S. pressure, the North Korean government had destroyed meth labs in its country. But it left the meth-production bases that his organization had access to, Lim said, according to U.S. prosecutors.
"The NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they (the North Korean government) are not selling it any more, they burned it. Then they transfer to another base," prosecutors quote Lim as saying on the recordings.
Lim claimed that his group had stockpiled one ton of North Korean meth in the Philippines "(b)ecause we already anticipated this thing would happen . . . (with the result being) we cannot bring out our goods right now."
According to prosecutors, Shackels was an intermediary for a test run with samples of the North Korean meth. The samples tested at 98% and 96% pure, prosecutors allege.
Stammers, Shackels and Alexander agreed to provide security for another test run, using a shipment of tea leaves, to check delivery channels to Thailand. From there the drugs would be repackaged and shipped to the United States, according to prosecutors.
According to court documents, Alexander, who was a leader of an Outlaw Motorcycle Club chapter in Thailand, would lead an armed crew of Outlaw members to provide security for shipments.
In September, Lim and Reyes Peralta traveled to Thailand to meet with the DEA undercover informant to finalize their deal to sell 100 kilos of the North Korean meth. All five men were arrested on September 25 by Thai authorities, who called it one of their biggest international crime cases.