Methamphetamine Epidemic in North Korea


NORTH KOREA — North Korea’s methamphetamine epidemic is common and rampant. Considering the amount of control the North Korean government exerts upon its populace, it might be surprising to hear that the North Korean government is not effectively regulating the methamphetamine epidemic. Many past and recent reports testify to the common use of methamphetamine throughout North Korean society. The poor populace of North Korea uses the drug to forget about their hunger. The rich give the drug as a New Year’s Day present to each other. Some North Korean defectors went as far as to testify that parents are using meth as a study aid for their children.

The History of the Methamphetamine Epidemic in North Korea

The North Korean regime is partly responsible for the rampant methamphetamine epidemic in North Korea. Originally, methamphetamine was introduced to the Korean peninsula during the Japanese colonial period. The Japanese gave methamphetamine to their soldiers and kamikaze pilots. North Korean defectors report that the North Korean military was already providing methamphetamine as a stimulant for its soldiers during the time of the Korean War.

With the collapse of the USSR, North Korea’s economy lost its biggest benefactor. In order to sustain the country’s economy the 1970s, the North Korean government encouraged the cultivation of poppies to earn foreign currency. After harvesting, these raw poppies were sold to the black market and criminal organizations around the world.

However, multiple floods and agricultural collapses devastated the poppy crops throughout North Korea’s history. This initiated the North Korean government’s change in its economic tactics. Instead of selling raw poppies, North Korea started to produce methamphetamine in factories. During the 1970s and the early-2000s, there were multiple reports of North Korean diplomats smuggling narcotics, cigarettes and gold from and to foreign nations. Some experts estimate that the North Korean regime was making as much as $500 million USD through their drug exports.

Involvement of Chinese Gangs

From 2005 to 2009, the state-sponsored meth production facilities were in decline. The North Korean regime started to close its state-sanctioned meth labs. This resulted in many jobless chemists who started to produce and sell their own meth. Many reports suggest that the majority of these meth operations are based in the Hamhung province.

In border cities close to China, these operations are run in cooperation with many Chinese gangs. Ephedrine and phenylacetone, the main ingredients in meth production, are hard to come by in North Korea. Therefore, many producers are sourcing them from Chinese gangs. In doing this, the North Korean producers acquire their raw ingredients cheaper and Chinese gangs are minimizing the risk of exposure to the Chinese authorities.

Methamphetamine in North Korea Today

All of these historic and economic factors contribute to the meth epidemic in North Korea today. What might be surprising to many is that North Koreans seem to consider meth a luxury good. As mentioned above, there are accounts of North Korean families gifting meth as a New Year’s gift. While meth is officially illegal in North Korea, the country’s governmental corruption and consumer demand for meth have essentially made meth legal.

Known colloquially as “Ice,” North Koreans have a very casual understanding of meth. The middle class uses the drug as back pain relief. Meanwhile, the poor use the drug to forget about their hunger. The idea that meth is an addictive substance also doesn’t seem to be a piece of public knowledge. In Daily NK’s 2015 report, they reported that the elites of North Korea are using meth as dieting pills. Since meth suppresses one’s appetite, many “housewives of cadres and trader workers” are buying them.

Potential Sign of Losing Control

What makes the current state of the meth epidemic in North Korea complicated is that this might be a sign that the North Korean regime is losing control over its citizens. Under the old totalitarian regime of North Korea, the private production and sale of goods were unthinkable. Experts suggest that the widespread usage and production of meth in North Korea are evidence of the North Korean regime’s lack of resources. Experts suggest that the North Korean government no longer has enough resources to pay and sustain their extensive law enforcement that used to closely monitor the population.

The meth epidemic in North Korea certainly paints a strange picture. While the picture of the poor using narcotics to numb their hunger is a bleak image, it is juxtaposed to the image of the elites casually offering meth to each other after dinner. However, the widespread production and use of meth in North Korea is a sign of the totalitarian regime’s loss of control over its populace. While data on North Korean meth addiction is scarce, the international community can only hope that the North Korean regime will educate its citizens about the dangers of meth and its addictive nature.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr


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