A troubling new diet fad is said to be gaining in popularity among the wives of North Korean elites: methamphetamine. Though much of the isolated communist country contends daily with malnutrition, a report in the online news outlet Daily NK indicates that these women are increasingly using crystal meth to lose weight. It also makes them feel pretty good, at least when they're high.
Experts have documented how North Korea became a major producer of meth for export in recent decades as part of an effort to collect hard currency. Because the drug suppresses appetite while providing an energetic boost, chronic hunger might have helped to spur its consumption at home. Although the extent of the drug's use within North Korea is difficult to determine, studies have suggested that it has reached "epidemic" levels, and defectors have testified that meth is ingested widely and openly in parts of the country.
An unnamed source told Daily NK that the spouses of North Korean officials and traders are purchasing the drug in growing numbers.
"There has recently been an increase in those who get it for dieting purposes," the source said. "Taking meth in the North is nothing shocking, and these officials find themselves permitting the practice because they like their wives to be slim."
North Korea's drug problem has created tensions with China, which has launched a war on narcotics that has particularly singled out synthetic drugs like meth that are trafficked from the hermit kingdom. North Korea is undertaking its own crackdown along the border to intercept defectors and smuggled goods. It has long denied sponsoring the manufacture of meth and its state-run labs are believed to have decreased production in recent years, while lower-level producers have grown.
Nevertheless, many experts suspect that private laboratories cooking meth are operating with the tacit approval of the North Korean government, which has tried to distance itself from direct involvement for the sake of optics.
"Once you become involved, you remain addicted to the trade," Raphael Perl, author of a detailed 2007 Congressional report on North Korean illicit activity, told VICE News last year. "It's a whole military hierarchy that's involved in both the distribution and production of methamphetamine. It's a big time industry. Why would they close down a profitable industry if they can get away with it?"
But the combination of diminished rates of production with the crackdown along the Chinese border — which prevents a lot of black market meth from being trafficked back into North Korea as well as out — is tightening supply. The Daily NK's source mentioned that a politically connected wife in the city of Hyesan had taken to living at her dealer's house to ensure access to the drug.
"The crackdown on meth has become more severe, so these kinds of things are happening all the time," the source said.
It's worth emphasizing that the "meth diet," to the extent that it exists, is an indulgence for a select few in North Korea. While addiction to the drug is said to be widespread, much of the country's population endures forced labor and is believed to be on the brink of starvation.
"The average person has no time, let alone opportunity, to gain weight between mandatory work mobilizations and a shortage of food," the source told Daily NK. If the wives who are keen on losing weight would simply share the food that they and other elites hoard, the source said, "they wouldn't eat it all alone and get fat."
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928