Narco-capitalism grips North Korea

The Tumen River, at the border between North K...

Tumen River - China-DPRK border

The Far-East has always had a “special relationship” with narcotics, and the DPRK is no exception. In a recent article, associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul Andrei Lankov notes a shift in narcotics production and use in North Korea, from state-run (or at least protected) to free-market style.

North Korea’s involvement with narcotics trafficking came under the spotlight 35 years ago. Lankov writes:

In 1976, Norwegian police intercepted a large shipment of hashish in the luggage of North Korean diplomats. The same year, another group of North Korean officials was found in possession of the same drug by Egyptian customs; they had 400 kilograms of hashish in their luggage.

In both cases, diplomatic passports saved them from any formal investigation. Next year, North Korean diplomats were caught trying to smuggle drugs into Venezuela and India. In India, quite friendly to North Korea in those days, the 15 kgs of hashish was transported by the ambassador’s secretary. After that, such seizures became regular occurrences, usually once every year or two, and usually involving North Korean diplomats.

Humanitarian workers have warned not to come to quick and easy conclusions: not all narcotic farming was for international trade. In the late nineties, when even North Koreans elite enough to work for UN staff found it near impossible to acquire simple antibiotics, it was common to see locally-produced anesthetic drugs derived from opiates used in hospitals.

Lankov also says that available estimates suggest that the DPRK government didn’t earn much from the illicit drug trade and that these risky operations were largely waged ostensibly to sustain North Korean missions overseas – from the mid-1970s such missions were required to pay for their own expenses. But according to the latest analysis of the US State Department, North Korea seems to have significantly reduced its narcotics production.

Lankov also cautions however against heaving a collective sigh of relief:

If anything, the situation has become worse over the past five to six years. But this time, the North Korean regime seems to have little or no responsibility for the new boom in drug production.

Things began to change around 2005; by that time North Korea had undergone what is usually described as “grassroots capitalism” or “marketization from below”. The old state-run economy had come to a complete standstill, so most North Koreans started to make a living through all sorts of private economic activities – from cultivating private fields and working at private workshops to smuggling.

Lankov reports that his frequent interactions with North Koreans suggest that the DPRK has experienced a sudden and dramatic upsurge in drug usage, especially in the more desolate northern regions. Lankov writes:

My interviewees say that at least in the cities of the borderlands a significant proportion of younger people have had some experience with Ice. A schoolteacher from a borderland city of Musan recently told me that in 2008-09 most of the students in their final years of high school tried Ice.

But the problem is not limited to the borderlands. A few months ago, a colleague of mine whilst visiting a prestigious college in Pyongyang spotted a poster that warned Pyongyang students about the dangers of drug use. Merely a few years ago, such a poster would be both unthinkable and unnecessary.

The North Korean drug scene is dominated by “Ice” (or crystal meth), a meth-amphetamine derivative which can be produced relatively easily in numerous small workshops. Indeed, the relative simplicity in production of meth is a problem for many western nations as well, as most of the ingredients are readily available through over-the-counter cold medication.

North Korean producers often import the raw materials from China which is also becoming a major market for North Korean drug manufacturers. In many cases, Lankov writes, there are joint operations of Chinese and North Korean criminal groups: the Chinese provide the necessary supplies while the North Koreans use their territory as a safe haven to process drugs that are later shipped to China.

More will be revealed on this issue, no doubt.


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