WASHINGTON -- The CIA knew about a North Korean smuggling operation involving American helicopters but failed to stop it, possibly giving the communist nation a dangerous new military option, NBC News reported Wednesday.
The network aired photographs of new helicopters made by Hughes Aircraft Co. of Los Angeles being unloaded and reassembled at a military airport in North Korea and said they were the first of 86 choppers smuggled out of the United States by North Korean agents in four shipments between 1983 and 1985.
NBC, which did not identify its sources, said North Korean agents around the world were involved in the smuggling operation under the direction of a top North Korean intelligence officer based in East Berlin, who ran the program from a trucking company in West Berlin.
The CIA was aware of his activities, NBC emphasized, and the network quoted authorities as saying the trucking firm, a Soviet front, was bugged, making it possible for American agents to listen in as the North Koreans plotted.
Quoting U.S. law enforcement officials, NBC said CIA agents in Europe and at agency headquarters outside Washington knew in detail of the entire plan but considered their source of the information so sensitive that they would not pass on any details to American law enforcement in time to stop the shipments.
Thus, while law officers and apparently Hughes Aircraft executives were in the dark, the shipments continued with the CIA -- and the insurer Lloyd's of London -- aware of the smuggling route from Los Angeles to North Korea.
A Lloyd's document obtained by NBC showed the underwriter insured the Hughes helicopters against confiscation from Long Beach, Calif., to Antwerp, Belgium, to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to Hong Kong and then to North Korea.
American authorities in California finally learned enough to seize a final shipment of 15 Hughes 500 helicopters -- like the 86 that went before them, the same helicopter the United States has supplied to the South Korean army.
In Seoul, the South Korean military told NBC it fears North Korea might use the new helicopters in a sneak attack across the border or against American and South Korean tanks.
Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci acknowledged to NBC that the helicopters in North Korean hands represent a serious setback to South Korean security.
At this year's joint South Korean-U.S. military talks, the defense minister from Seoul said North Korea already had painted South Korean markings on the Hughes helicopters.
In February, Ronald Semler of Malibu and Monte Semler of Santa Barbara, Calif., pleaded guilty to conspiracy and to export and tax law violations stemming from the illegal shipment of the Hughes helicopters to North Korea.
In a plea bargain, the brothers admitted violating export laws but denied knowing the choppers were bound for North Korea. The pair owned a military equipment export company in the San Fernando Valley.
Ron Semler was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40,000. His brother was sentenced to one year and a day in prison with a $40,000 fine.