North Korea may recall its ambassador to Switzerland later this month, sources familiar with the matter have said, following allegations that the envoy was involved in illicit trades of parts of African wild animals for money evading UN-imposed sanctions against Pyongyang.

The suspicions have prompted a United Nations Security Council-related panel to launch a fact-finding investigation regarding involvement by the ambassador, Han Tae-song, in the trade of elephant tusks and rhino horns, the sources said.

Ivory and rhino horns are valued components in Chinese medicine and command high prices. North Korea is believed to engage in illicit trades of these materials as a covert means of obtaining foreign currencies.

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While the North Korean government is considering replacing some of its ambassadors globally, removing the Swiss ambassador has been a top priority for Pyongyang, possibly to avoid an investigation into sanctions evasion, the sources said.

Han, along with Yi Kang-dae, an intelligence official from North Korea, is suspected of being involved in such smuggling activities, according to a letter sent last month from the panel to Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The panel operates under a council committee and monitors activities that may involve the evasion of anti-Pyongyang sanctions imposed by the primary mandate of the world body.

In the letter dated November 10, the panel requested the four African countries provide information on the two North Korean officials by Friday, including banking transactions and identification details.

An inventory of illegal elephant ivory stockpiles in Nairobi, Kenya. Ivory and rhino horns are valued components in Chinese medicine and command high prices. Photo: AFP

Han, who has served as the country’s top envoy to Switzerland since 2017, was allegedly engaged in the transfers of at least 19 elephant tusks and 18 rhino horns in 2022 and 2023 through deals involving the four African countries before their shipment to China, according to a report from Botswana.

As a result of an investigation by the four African countries, some rangers have been detained for conspiring in trades involving the North Koreans.

The UN Security Council has authorised a spate of sanctions against North Korea in reaction to its activities related to its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes in defiance of resolutions adopted by the council.