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North Korea's smuggling helps pay for nukes, experts say

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Reports indicate that smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons help pay for North Korea’s weapons program. (Source: CNN) Reports indicate that smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons help pay for North Korea’s weapons program. (Source: CNN)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) - North Korea's neighbors continue to keep watch for a possible missile launch by the secretive regime.

Amid the tension, the north repeated a threat to permanently close the industrial zone it jointly operates with South Korea.

It may have stopped participating in the complex, but another stream of revenue is thriving.

Experts say North Korea is the headquarters for a huge smuggling operation, helping to underwrite North Korea's nuclear program.

"Kim Jong Un really sits atop a criminal network that would make Don Corleone or Tony Soprano proud," Bruce Klingner of The Heritage Foundation said.

The network smuggles missiles, missile parts, other weapons, counterfeit American dollars, fake pharmaceuticals like Viagra and illegal drugs like heroin and methamphetamine.

Analysts and Asian officials say the drugs go to the U.S. and Asia over land and water.

Missile-parts are flown to Iran.

The program involves a spider-web of shipments, with ever-more creative methods of transport.

"They also have acted as couriers, kind of the Fed-Ex of the international drug trade," Marcus Noland of Peterson Institute for International Economics said. "North Korean diplomats have been busted in a number of countries, using their diplomatic pouch to smuggle drugs."

Former top CIA officer Klingner, who spied on North Korea for several years, lays out another smuggling tactic.

"We know they've used freighter ships to get the drugs into Japan," he said. "And, then, when that became difficult, they were even using the semi-submersible agent-insertion special operations boats. They would send shipments out here and then drop them off to be picked up by the Yakuza, the Japanese organized crime gangs, for pickup to then go into Japan."

It's not just trafficking.

Analysts say counterfeit dollars and methamphetamine carry the "made in North Korea" label.

"This area is the rust-belt of North Korea," Noland said. "The city of Chongjin, historically, has been a center of the chemicals industry, and in its depressed state, has become a center of making illegal methamphetamines. They're made in Chongjin, and then they're shipped right across the border into China."

The smuggling creates meth addicts in China and anger from Chinese officials, maybe the only true friends North Korea has left.

The governments of North Korea and Iran did not respond to requests for comment.

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