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A shopping trip leads to a scuffle between North Koreans and Homeland Security officials in New York

A shopping expedition to Arizona led to an unusual scuffle between a visiting North Korean delegation and federal officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to people familiar with the incident.

The Department of Homeland Security seized “multiple media items and packages from the individuals, at which time the North Koreans attempted to physically retrieve the items,” the Department of Homeland Security said Monday.

The North Korean delegation had been attending the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities at the United Nations. According to a U.S. official who asked not to be named, members of the group had made a trip to Arizona in an attempt to buy technology-related items that are possibly banned under sanctions law.

Under State Department rules, U.N.-based diplomats from North Korea, as well as those from Syria and Iran, are not permitted to travel more than 25 miles away from New York without prior approval. “This was a lot farther than that,’’ said the U.S. official.

The North Korean official news service referred to the airport incident, which occurred Saturday, as a “mugging.”

“At the airport, a group of more than 20 including those who claimed to be from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the police officers made a violent assault like gangsters to take away the diplomatic package,’’ the KCNA news service reported on Sunday. “Diplomats of a sovereign state are being robbed of a diplomatic package in the middle of New York…. This clearly shows that the U.S. is a felonious and lawless gangster state.’’

The delegation was headed by Kim Moon Chul, an official of the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled.

In the past, North Korean diplomats have been accused of using their diplomatic immunity to smuggle a variety of items, including counterfeit currency and rhinoceros horns. There was no suggestion that was the case in this instance. Homeland Security did not say what the packages contained and the members of the delegation were released.

It was unclear exactly what the packages contained. U.N. sanctions against North Korea restrict the sale of numerous products classified as luxury goods or high-technology items, including medical equipment such as X-ray machines.

Homeland Security said in its statement that the North Koreans were “not accredited members of North Korea's Mission to the U.N. and had no entitlement to diplomatic immunity. The package in question had no diplomatic protection from inspection.”

“The individuals were released without further incident but subsequently refused to board their departing flight without the items that had been seized,’’ the statement said.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick

 

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