North Korea, increasingly in need of cash to pay for things like armies, missiles, and food, has developed a rather healthy illicit economy that includes DVD trafficking and drug smuggling. A detailed new report from the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “Illicit: North Korea’s Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency,” chronicles the various money-raising methods of Pyongyang, which have been crucial to the Kim regime’s “self-preservation” since the 1970s.  

The report looks at three stages of North Korea’s illicit economy development, which began in the 1970s with government officials trafficking drugs and counterfeit cigarettes to diplomatic outposts, and later moved into counterfeit currency production. Today, a number of forces are threatening leader Kim Jong-un’s grip on power, including brutal international trade restrictions that have only strengthened the power of the underground markets. Those markets originally developed as a "survival mechanism” for the most desparate North Koreans, but money and food became harder and harder to come by, the borders have become more porous and ability to earn money through the illicit economy has become more important.

Fake pharmaceuticals, counterfeit cigarettes, and products from endangered species like rhino horn and ivory are recent examples of the illicit trade. In fact, they have now surpassed North Korea’s reliance on manufacturing knock-off drugs and counterfeiting foreign bank notes, reports Julian Ryall at The TelegraphThe global campaign of counterfeit distribution was potentially worth millions of dollars for the economy. A seizure of 3 million cartons counterfeit cigarettes was valued at $3 million, while the discovery of half a million tablets of Captagon, a synthetic stimulant, was estimated to be worth $7 million. 

Other recent examples include the North Korean officials caught in 2004 smuggling 150,000 Clonazepam sedative pills through Egypt, and the production of fake Viagra tablets. Officials have also smuggled used cars and gems across international borders, trafficked DVDs, and sold pornography.

Tourism, while very limited and highly controlled, is one of the legal ways that North Korea generates income. Over the weekend, the country opened its marathon to foreign amateurs for the first time in 27 years, and the country has said it will complete a luxury ski resort to attract more tourists. But a bizarre story out of London today suggests that foreigners have the right to be wary. Police had to step in after North Korean embassy officials turned up at a North London barbershop that used an image of Kim Jong-un to promote a 15 percent discount on haircuts. 

“I told them this is England and not North Korea and told them to get their lawyers,” Mo Nabbach, who runs M&M Hair Academy, told the Evening Standard. “We did take it down but then some of our clients told me to put it back up because we have a democracy here." Someone better tell Mike Huckabee.