Crystal meth epidemic undermines North Korean regime

Published: October 16, 2013

The hermit kingdom of North Korea is in the grip of an epidemic of addiction to the highly addictive and damaging drug methamphetamine, that the authoritarian regime of Kim Jong-un appears powerless to control.

A new report by two South Korean academics, who interviewed recent defectors from the North, says that in some parts of the country half the population is addicted to what is often called crystal meth or ice.

The Kim regime does not appear to have the will or the capacity to effectively confront the epidemic, which has spread over the border into neighbouring districts of China and is causing social dislocation there too.

The academics, Prof. Kim Seok-hyang, of the Department of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, and Andrei Lankov, associate professor at Kookmin University’s College of Social Studies, say the drug epidemic is yet another serious pressure on the regime already threatened by a largely dysfunctional economy.

However, Lankov, who was a citizen of the Soviet Union as a young man, attended university in Pyongyang, and is one of the best-informed outside analysts of North Korea, says he is unwilling to speculate if and when the epidemic will bring down the regime. The grim irony is that North Korea’s epidemic has grown out of a massive industry run by the regime since the 1970s to produce the drug and traffic it internationally, often by Pyongyang’s diplomats abroad, in order to raise hard currency for the country’s shattered economy.

This state-controlled drug industry started with opium-based drugs, but in the 1990s shifted to methamphetamine, a Japanese-invented drug, which the Pyongyang regime manufactured from the 1950s onwards. The drug was produced at two pharmaceutical plants at Pyongyang and Hamhung, and was fed to the North Korean military in small doses to increase alertness, reduce tiredness, and induce feelings of invincibility.

But when Pyongyang shut down this industry around 2005 under international pressure, it threw scores of chemists, technicians and scientists out of work. It was not long before local entrepreneurs and Chinese criminal gangs capitalized on this pool of manpower.

Many of the sacked chemists were persuaded to set up private operations, often in North Korea’s abundant supply of abandoned factories, to manufacture crystal meth. The main precursors for the drug are ephedrine and phenylacetone, and are not easily available in North Korea. They are smuggled in from China.

China is also a major market for the drug. A study by the United States Brookings Institute three years ago found that more than 90 per cent of drug addicts in Jilin province, bordering North Korea, used methamphetamine rather than heroin, which is the common drug used by addicts in the rest of China.

Defectors interviewed by Kim and Lankov said that the widespread addiction to crystal meth grew out of a popular belief that it was a wonder drug that would ease pain and cure almost any ailment.

With supplies of regular medicines in short supply, many people turned to crystal meth, known locally as bingdu. Some reports say a gram of crystal meth costs the equivalent of up to 10 kg of rice. Others say a gram can cost $11, a large sum in this impoverished country.

It is not just ordinary North Korean citizens who take the drug to ward off the evils of everyday life. The use of crystal meth became prevalent among officials and the police around 2005.

To a significant extent, crystal meth has become a currency in North Korea. Bribes and other transactions with officials and the police are now frequently paid in crystal meth.

Several defectors told Lankov and Kim that it was the regular use of the drug by officials that persuaded many ordinary North Koreans that if rich and privileged people used the crystal meth, it must be safe.

Some parents are reported to have fed small doses of the drug to their children to help them concentrate on homework. As a result, in the last two years many children have become addicted and the demand for crystal meth has spread throughout the country’s schools.

There are widespread accounts, both from North Korea and China, of serious social problems arising from psychotic reactions among people with heavy addictions. It has also, of course, caused a health crisis, which is going largely unaddressed.

The Pyongyang government’s tepid response to the crisis has been to launch a poster campaign warning of the danger of drugs and in many parts of the country people have been forced to attend weekly indoctrination sessions. However, this campaign gives people little information about the damage to health caused by crystal meth, and focuses instead on the shame drug addiction brings on North Korea’s international image.

Lankov says the regime appears to be not only unwilling but also incapable of combating the epidemic.

The country’s collapsed economy and tottering administrative infrastructure is no longer capable of maintaining what was once the world’s most effective authoritarian regime.

But Lankow is unwilling to predict the imminent fall of the regime as a result. “Like many of my colleagues, I do believe that in the long run the regime is doomed, but the trouble is the long run might be very long indeed,” he said.


Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe