North Korea’s Collapsing Economy Opens Door for Criminal Gangs

North Korea’s Collapsing Economy Opens Door for Criminal Gangs

SHANGHAI -- North Korea has long been an important link in East Asia's organized criminal networks. But recent reports suggest that, as the collapse of the country's planned economy continues, the scale of these activities may be expanding and the dynamics behind them changing.

While Chinese, South Korean and other Asian criminal networks have historically been active in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), traditionally the North Korean government was also a major participant in illegal activities. It is known to have been engaged in narcotics production and trafficking, people trafficking and currency forgery. However, as the country's planned economy implodes and social conditions deteriorate, the state finds itself increasingly unable to participate in or regulate these activities. And criminal gangs have been quick to pick up the slack.

The DPRK's involvement in organized crime dates back to at least the mid-1970s, when North Korean diplomats were first intercepted carrying hashish and opium out of the country. Overall, drug production and distribution were carried out on a relatively small scale, with revenues probably used to fund the country's cash-strapped diplomatic missions. In the mid-1990s, a series of poor harvests reduced poppy supply, and domestic economic conditions deteriorated sharply. Nearly all funding for diplomatic missions was cut off, and around this time the government became involved with methamphetamine production and distribution.

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