NEW YORK (AP) — An international drug trafficker was caught on tape this year making a "Breaking Bad"-worthy boast about his ability to provide the U.S. market with mass quantities of methamphetamine — not blue, but still potent and from a unique source.
"We have the NK product," he said, according to court papers. "It's only us who can get it from NK."
By "NK," he meant North Korea, where U.S. authorities say meth production and trafficking present an emerging threat that's been illuminated by a case brought in federal court in Manhattan against a tattooed motorcycle gang leader, two Brits named Stammers and Shackels, and two other expatriates also operating in Southeast Asia.
The five men were snared in a sting operation involving undercover Drug Enforcement Administration operatives, identified in the papers only as confidential sources, who posed as buyers in a fake plot to distribute the meth in New York City.
In Pyongyang, a spokesman for North Korean's foreign ministry responded last week with a sharply worded statement saying the country strictly forbids drug manufacturing drug smuggling. It called the case "another politically motivated puerile charade" spread by "the Western reptile media."
But experts on North Korea say signs of a steady output of meth there — and the potential for global distribution — is very real.
"It's entirely plausible, if not probable, that a high quantity of North Korean meth could be smuggled into the United States," said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University.
Because of its extreme poverty and isolation, North Korea has long relied on a shadow economy to support its ruling elite. It makes sense that meth has joined a list of illicit goods that in the past included knock-off major brand cigarettes and counterfeit U.S. currency, Lee said.
The drug "is easy to produce and has a high profit margin," he said. "It would be surprising if the state turned away from this opportunity."
According to a 2010 Brookings Institution report, most meth cooked in North Korea is smuggled into Northeast China, then to Shandong, Beijing and other interior provinces. Smaller amounts are consumed by North Koreans to numb themselves to hunger and hardships, or it ends up in South Korea and Japan, where it brings a higher return.
U.S. authorities described the five men charged in the U.S. case as members of a loose confederation of outlaws in Asia already well-versed in a black market for military weaponry, technology and other illegal drugs the authorities fear could help fund terrorism.
Among their associates was Joseph "Rambo" Hunter, a former American soldier who pleaded not guilty in September to charges in New York that he recruited a group of ex-snipers to be a security team for drug traffickers, authorities said.
The meth case began in 2012 after law enforcement agents seized 30 kilograms obtained in North Korea by two members of a Hong Kong-based criminal organization, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, of Hong Kong, and Kelly Allan Reyes Peralta, of the Philippines, with the help of British citizens Scott Stammers and Philip Shackels.
In early 2013, Lim and Reyes Peralta, in an unidentified Asian country, agreed to meet with the DEA operatives and were recorded telling them that, in effect, they were the Heisenbergs of North Korean meth.
Lim explained that the North Korean government had sought to appease the West by shutting down some labs. He also claimed his operation had cornered what was left of the wholesale supply, in part by stockpiling a ton of it in another country.
"Only our labs are not closed. ... Our product is really from NK," Lim said, according to prosecutors.
Lim claimed he could supply 100 kilograms for $65,000 per kilo but first sought assurances it would reach the U.S. market in New York City, authorities said. He also agreed to supply two samples for testing through Stammers, who shipped them to the buyers. They were intercepted and testing found they were 98 percent and 96 percent pure, according to court papers.
In an email, Stammers wrote that he had received feedback that of the samples, the buyers preferred the one that was clear in appearance and had bigger shards. At a later meeting, he introduced the buyers to Adrian Valkovic, the sergeant-at-arms of the Outlaw Motorcycle Club and the point person for securing the shipment destined for what the men referred to as "the Apple," court papers said.
The men discussed smuggling the shipment into American waters on a yacht and transferring it at sea, authorities said. The plan called for staging a party or a photo shoot on the vessel to provide cover, the papers said.
All five men were arrested in September and held in Thailand after gathering to receive payments and final instruction for the shipment. It's unclear whether any drugs were seized.
The defendants pleaded not guilty in New York on Wednesday, when they met their U.S. lawyers for the first time. Peralta's attorney, Daniel Parker, said his client was relieved he was no longer locked up in a Bangkok jail "under conditions no one would want to be in."
The lawyers said they knew little about their clients' backgrounds, but they questioned the strength of the government's case.
"I'm curious to know more about the evidence," said Adam Perlmutter, Lim's lawyer. "The DEA has a knack for elaborate stings where ultimately there are words involved but no drugs."
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this story.