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North Korea's Got a Big Crystal Meth Problem

A New Report Details the Hermit Kingdom's Infamous Meth Production and Rising Addiction Rates.

Dancing girls in Pyongyang (Image via Flickr user Leef_Smith)

North Korean meth is the bomb—at least, according to US officials who tested two batches last year. The packages of sharp, ice-like crystals measured 98 percent and 96 percent for purity, respectively. According to an indictment against the suppliers, who were arrested in 2013, the drug was so pure that “people in New York, they went crazy… the places that we put it in the States, New York… Boston, all these places, I mean, they went crazy.” 

According to a new report by Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, the North Korean government has used drug manufacturing and a host of other nefarious activities to raise funds since the 1970s. The regime defaulted on its international loans in 1976 and Dr. Greitens describes how that same year “a dozen members of North Korea’s diplomatic corps, including the North Korean Ambassador to Norway, [were] ejected… for smuggling illicit goods" including "4,000 bottles of booze (mostly Polish vodka) and 140,000 cigarettes" in Sweden, and "400 bottles of liquor, 4.5 million cigarettes. and 147 kilos of hashish in Denmark.”

After the collapse of the USSR, North Korea lost its communist financers and that, combined with tough sanctions and disastrous policy decisions, resulted in the famine of the 1990s where an estimated one million people died. Factories were not operating and fishermen starved in the harbor, as they had no oil to power their boats. Desperate to survive, the Kim regime forced community farms to cultivate opium poppies and demanded as much as 132 pounds of raw opium per harvest. “We should be growing grain, not poppies,” said one defector quoted in Dr. Greitens' report. “But the instruction from the central government was that if we grow poppies we can sell the product for ten times as much to buy grain.”

After the famine ended in the 2000s, North Korean factories began to produce a more modern type of drug: methamphetamine. “Officials from North Korea’s various security agencies were reportedly involved in guarding the plants and factories,” writes Dr. Greitens. Within the factories, real-life Walter Whites were hired to school local chemists in the art of synthesizing pure, potent meth crystals. “Experts were brought in to advise on production."

A line of crystal meth or "bangdu" in Chinese (Image via Flickr user Digitalcolony)

North Korean meth and heroin was highly prized on the black market and Triad and Yakuza gangs were lining up to distribute the drugs across China, Japan, and the US, according to Dr. Greitens. “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."

But why rely on desperate gangsters when you have a host of agents stationed legally inside target nations with diplomatic immunity? Indeed, North Korean embassy staff continued to be thrown out of their host nations on various charges. As well as drugs, North Korean officials have been caught smuggling such things as rhino horns and ivory, 500,000 counterfeit cigarettes and counterfeit $100 bills so convincing that US treasury officials dubbed them “supernotes.”  

“Given the variety of products involved in these incidents and the repeated presence of North Korean diplomats in them, these incidents appear to be primarily the result of a ‘self-financing’ policy,” writes Dr. Greitens, “by which embassies are expected to finance their own operations, and contribute money back to the regime in Pyongyang.”

Since 2005, the regime has apparently scaled back official meth manufacture. “The North Korean government already burned all the labs to show the Americans that they are not selling it any more [but] then they transferred it to another base,” one of the meth importers arrested last year was quoted as saying in the indictment. Elsewhere in the document, he claims, “only [North Koreans] can get the real North Korean product now.”  

The closure of government meth labs has left a lot of talented meth cooks unemployed and many continue to operate in what Dr. Greitens calls “a hybrid space between public and private.” In these gray markets, political elites grab a share of the profits raised from evil-smelling meth kitchens constructed in broken-down houses and abandoned school buildings.

While the regime asserts that “North Koreans with healthy mental and moral qualities have no intention of turning out or exporting narcotics,” it’s clear that no large-scale economic activity happens in North Korea without officials knowing about it—I mean, what kind of totalitarian regime would they be if they didn’t?

North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and some generals (Image via

Unsurprisingly, domestic use of meth has skyrocketed. Suited elites in Pyongyang restaurants offer each other a “nose” after dinner, the middle classes take it as a cold cure or remedy for back pain, and the poor take it to ease the emptiness in their stomachs. The drug is apparently so common that the attitude of North Koreans has become blasé. “When meeting people we not infrequently swapped drugs to see whose ice was more potent,” said one defector in Dr. Greitens’s report. “We just did it naturally as if we were exchanging cigarettes.” Another defector said, “If people in the countryside take ice, their back pain is cured... And if you give it to people who have had a stroke, they recover.”

While the regime denies exporting meth, large amounts continue to leave the country. In 2011 Chinese authorities reported that they had seized over $60 million worth of drugs coming in from the hermit kingdom. In the Chinese border province of Jilin, the number of people addicted to drugs has leapt from a registered 44 in 1991 to an estimated 10,000 today.

North Korea's involvement in the drug trade is a result of economic necessity and the ideology of self-reliance. The tragic fallout of these policies has led many of the country's own citizens to become addicted to the drugs their country is peddling abroad.

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