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From Birthday Gifts to Currency: The Pervasive Drug Culture in North Korea

Since the 1980s, North Korea has been running a state-sponsored drug business

Source: Slate

Since the 1980s, North Korea has been heavily involved in the drug trade, led by the government in what’s known as the “white bellflower” project.

Dr. Yang Seong Gwan, a specialist in family medicine and author of “A Mind Engaged in Drugs, A Society Selling Drugs,” appeared on a YouTube broadcast to discuss North Korea’s drug situation.

According to Dr. Yang, North Korea is developing the highest quality drugs, particularly methamphetamine, with a concentration of 99%, through state-operated pharmaceutical companies employing pharmacists and professors.

The majority of high-quality drugs, known for their very high concentration and consistent quality, are said to be manufactured in North Korea. This is attributed to the centralized approach under the government’s leadership, unlike the potential variability that may occur when criminal organizations or individuals produce drugs.

Dr. Yang cited North Korea’s focus on drugs as driven by its nuclear development efforts. With UN sanctions blocking trade for 30 years, and with little else for the country to export in its economically constrained environment, North Korea turned its attention to the drug trade, which commands higher prices than gold.

Source: Reuters

Since the complete devaluation of its domestic currency, North Korea has seen the yuan and the dollar essentially replace its currency, with reports even suggesting drugs being traded as units of currency.

Elite engineers, previously responsible for the production and management of drugs at the national level, have transitioned to the private sector, contributing to the proliferation of drugs among the general population in North Korea.

According to defectors, drugs have permeated everyday life to the extent that they are commonly used for purposes such as pain relief, birthday gifts, congratulatory money, condolences, and even weight loss.

Recognizing the severity of the drug issue domestically, North Korea has belatedly initiated large-scale crackdowns, including the establishment of related punishment regulations. However, according to defectors’ testimonies, drug offenders are often given lenient sentences, typically a few months, if they offer money or bribes at the scene of drug enforcement.

Furthermore, there are frequent occurrences where confiscated drugs are reintroduced into the market by the enforcement team.

Ironically, the state-run drug business, driven by the desire for foreign currency earnings, has inadvertently trapped its citizens in the quagmire of drug addiction.

Source: Business Insider

The primary destination for North Korean drugs is China, given North Korea’s inability to engage in formal trade. Most drug trafficking occurs across the border, making China the biggest beneficiary.

As a result, northeastern China, bordering North Korea, has emerged as a global route for drug trafficking.

Drugs originating from North Korea, commonly referred to as “binged” or ice drugs, are transported in large quantities into China through regions such as Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province and Dandong in Liaoning Province, the largest trading hub between North Korea and China before being distributed domestically and even overseas.

According to Chinese media, Chinese drug dealers supply seeds to farmers, cultivate marijuana, extract raw materials, and then send them to North Korea for processing into the final product, which is then retrieved in its complete form.

The increase in drug trafficking between China and North Korea is attributed to the leakage of drug manufacturing technology, previously monopolized by North Korean authorities, to the private sector.

A North Korean insider explained that areas with narrow river widths or low water depths, such as the upper reaches of the Tumen and Yalu rivers, serve as focal points for drug trafficking between North Korea and China, with North Korean border guards often disregarding these activities.

Source: RFA

The prevalence of widespread drug use in North Korean society has led to an increase in drug-related offenses among North Korean defectors, prompting calls for government action.

According to recent data released by the Ministry of Justice, 812 North Korean defectors were incarcerated in prisons from 2018 to 2022. Specifically, 145 were detained in 2018, 152 in 2019, 169 in 2020, 180 in 2021, and 166 in 2022, averaging around 150 individuals detained each year.

The most significant concern is that among these detainees, drug-related offenders accounted for the highest proportion at 32.5%, totaling 264 individuals. This translates to approximately 50 drug-related crimes committed annually, based on average figures.

Experts attribute this trend to the lack of resistance among North Korean defectors towards drugs themselves, coupled with a limited awareness of the criminal implications of drug use, distribution, or sale.

Furthermore, they advocate for the implementation of a systematic approach to address drug abuse among North Korean defectors upon their arrival in South Korea. This includes expanding the duration and content of formal education on drug-related issues, as well as conducting surveys and implementing urine, hair, and blood tests to detect drug use systematically.

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