“Breaking bad” in the drug trade: North Korea’s dilemma with meth addiction
Following suit with the surge of meth production and use in China, methamphetamines have gained a large presence in North Korean culture. It has become a large supplier for the substance and has even had alleged government ties to its production.
According to a report by Harvard University researcher Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens titled “Illicit: North Korea’s Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency,” the North Korean government has previously used drug manufacturing and other criminal enterprises to collect money since the 1970s. Dr. Greitens substantiates these claims with an instance in 1976 in which a dozen North Korean diplomats were arrested for smuggling illegal substances. In the same year, the North Korean government defaulted on its international loans.
After the USSR collapsed, North Korea lost financers from the communist community. Soon after, policies were enacted that resulted in a nationwide famine, leading to the deaths of 1 million North Koreans. The Kim regime forced farmers to cultivate poppy plants and would demand harvests as big as 60 kilograms. One defector in Dr. Greitens’ report said, “We should’ve been growing grain, not poppies.” The defector claimed that farmers were instructed by the central government to grow poppies so they could “sell the product for ten times as much to buy grain.”
This famine ended over two decades later and poppy cultivation transitioned into meth production. Dr. Greitens writes, “Officials from North Korea’s various security agencies were reportedly involved in guarding the plants and factories … Experts were brought in to advise in production.” Within these factories, trained chemists would be employed to manufacture the drug.
North Korean heroin and methamphetamine were then trafficked by Yakuza and Triad gangs across Japan, China and the U.S. “The gangs would pick up packages of drugs dropped at sea … Drugs were also transported by train (and other methods) across North Korea’s northern border into China.” Along with illicit drugs, North Korean officials were also intercepted smuggling other prized goods such as ivory and rhino horns. Dr. Greitens notes that these incidents marked attempts from North Korean embassies around the world to adhere in “self financing” policies. These are policies imposed on North Korean diplomats “by which embassies are expected to finance their own operations, and contribute money back to the regime in Pyongyang.”
After 2005, the regime had burned all of their meth manufacturing labs to show the American government that they were not selling the drug anymore, but instead, transferred operations over to another base, according to Dr. Greitens. The closure of these labs left many meth cooks unemployed and many of them continued to operate in “a hybrid space between public and private.” These are areas of the black market in which political elites will receive a share the cooks’ profits from clandestine lab operations.
The domestic use of crystal meth has shot up over the years in North Korea and has gained an unusually casual role among citizens and has little stigma attached to it. Some will ingest meth to treat colds, boost energy levels or help with working late hours. Some North Koreans have even said that is offered as casually as a cup of tea. North Korean Lee Saera said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “If you go to somebody’s house it is a polite way to greet somebody by offering them a sniff … It is like drinking coffee when you’re sleepy, but ice is so much better.”
The regime has denied exporting meth, but recent figures could imply otherwise. Recent figures suggest that North Korea still plays a large role in the distribution of narcotics, according to reports by Chinese authorities. The country is believed to be a large source of synthetic drugs in China. A report by the Brookings Institution notes “Across China, more than 70 percent of drug addicts abuse heroin, but in Jilin Province [on the North Korean border] more than 90 percent of addicts abuse new synthetic drugs and ice in particular.” These incidences have led to a tightening of border patrols, hindering North Korea’s meth trade.
North Korea’s role in the narcotic trade is one that originated out of economic desperation and attempts at self financing. The aftermath of such policies have led many citizens to become addicted to these very substances and leaves numerous areas of the country facing a major surge in meth use.
Meth addiction is large epidemic in today’s drug culture and leaves people across the world in need of treatment. Sovereign Health Group is among the leading drug addiction treatment providers in the United States. We offer a wide range of treatment programs across the nation for patients who are struggling with addiction, mental health disorders and dual diagnosis. If you or a loved one struggling with substance dependency, please do not hesitate to call. You may reach us at 888-530-4614.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer