go to top
North Korean men ride their bicycles in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean men ride their bicycles in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 1, 2019 (AP photo by Dita Alangkara).

What’s Behind the Growing Use of Illicit Drugs in North Korea

Friday, May 10, 2019

Though the government maintains a stance that they are illegal and undesirable, the use of drugs in North Korea, particularly crystal meth, appears to be growing as state actors profit from its production and sale.

[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]

The use of illegal drugs in North Korea appears to be on the rise. Radio Free Asia reported that crystal meth was popular as a gift during February’s Lunar New Year holiday, and the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news site, recently reported that drug addiction is increasingly prevalent among the country’s youth. The appeal of crystal meth, which is widely produced in North Korea and useful in combating hunger, could be a product of the scarcity of imports under increasingly harsh international sanctions, says Justin Hastings, an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Sydney and author of “A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy.” In an email interview with WPR, he discusses the production, use and perception of illegal drugs in North Korea.

World Politics Review: What might be causing the apparent increase in the use of drugs in North Korea, including giving drugs as Lunar New Year gifts?

Justin Hastings: I can’t independently confirm that drugs are given as gifts, but as with any “luxury good” that is relatively widely available, it wouldn’t be surprising. A few factors could be driving such a trend. First, crystal meth is produced inside of North Korea, so stoppages of trade at the Chinese border due to sanctions have no effect on the availability of crystal meth within North Korea. Meanwhile, imported food and consumer goods are often hard to come by due to sanctions enforcement, so it’s possible that more people are relying on domestically produced goods, including crystal meth, for gifts.

With the rise of the informal market economy in the past few years, North Koreans, particularly in the border regions, likely have a little bit more disposable income. Crystal meth is an appetite suppressant, so it is also useful for combating hunger, which remains prevalent in North Korea.

WPR: How are meth and other illicit drugs generally viewed in North Korea? Has the perception of drugs in North Korea evolved over time?

Hastings: The North Korean government primarily began producing meth as a way of improving its soldiers’ performance. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact time, but Japanese troops used meth during World War II, so it wouldn't have been a huge leap for North Korea to adopt it. It was also found to be useful for staving off hunger during what Pyongyang calls the “Arduous March”—the famine in the 1990s that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. At the time, state control broke down to a certain extent as North Koreans tried to survive without help from the government.

After failures in the poppy harvest in the early 1990s, which meant a collapse in profits from opium and heroin production, the North Korean government began producing and trafficking crystal meth for export using state-owned companies, diplomatic facilities and personnel, military vessels, and other state assets. It also linked up with organized criminal networks for distribution outside of North Korea, and a number of officials grew wealthy from the proceeds. Crystal meth production also soon spread outside of official government-run production centers, with many unregulated factories and individually run labs producing crystal meth on the side.

Beginning around 2005, the government seems to have become alarmed at the spread of drug use within North Korean society, and it started cracking down, particularly in the border regions. The use of state assets to traffic drugs seems to have ceased around this time as well, although the flow of crystal meth into China seems to have remained relatively constant for at least five or six years after that, and possibly even until today.

WPR: What is the government’s stance on illicit drugs, and how much of a gap is there between the regime's official position and the reality on the ground?

Hastings: The government’s official stance on illicit drugs is that they are illegal and socially undesirable, and drug dealers are occasionally punished, and in some cases executed, particularly during public crackdowns. That said, this is the case for practically any crime in North Korea.

However, this doesn’t mean that the North Korean state doesn’t continue to profit from crystal meth production. Since the Arduous March, North Koreans throughout society have gone into business for themselves, through private enterprises, through officially sanctioned businesses—or, if they are state officials, by using their positions to license businesses and extract bribes, or to engage in side businesses of their own. Crystal meth production and trafficking have become illicit, but this just means that private producers and state companies with side businesses in crystal meth continue to do business while paying state officials to look the other way. Those state officials in turn pay their superiors to look the other way on their own shady business dealings, and so on up the “food chain.” The result is an off-the-books system of taxation in which the central government indirectly collects money from virtually everyone in North Korean society, allowing the government to profit from the drug trade without directly being involved in it. This dynamic also makes the practice difficult to stamp out, since that would kill a valuable cash cow for many state officials and elites. It would also shut down an important revenue stream for the government.

[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on the U.S.-China Rivalry in the Trump Era. ]

What are your thoughts on the production and sale of drugs in North Korea?We would like to hear them. Scroll down to comment on this article.