North Korea Has a Meth Problem

North Korea’s government has long been suspected of producing illicit drugs for export. In 2003,  a high-level defector testified that the goverment is deeply involved in producing and exporting opiates,  including heroin, and amphetamines. North Korea’s official ideology, really “crude, race-based nationalism” thinly veiled in socialism, would have had no problem justifying the poisoning of Japanese and Australian kids, but it was just a matter of time before North Korean drugs found their way into North Korean society. Until recently, reports of North Korean drug abuse were fragmentary. No longer.

The Australian Air Force sinks the suspected North Korean drug ship Pong Su

Today, there is too much evidence to deny that North Korea’s drug problem is serious and growing, and that it threatens  the country’s  social and political  stability.  A  series of alarming reports  in the Daily NK paints a bleak picture of abuse of opiates, including heroin,  but especially of a form of methampetamine the North Koreans call “bingdu” or “philopon.” 

The “best” philipon comes from a state pharmaceutical factory in the city of Hamheung, although  meth is also produced at a factory in Chongjin, and increasingly, in clandestine meth labs. 

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Left to right: North Korean opium, an illegal drug user, philopon (Daily NK photos)


Can North Koreans can afford drugs?  Some can.  Not everyone starves in North Korea.  For the poor, North Korea’s food situation may be as bad as it has been since the Great Famine, but  even then, most  of those in  the  upper levels  in North Korea’s complex  caste system had enough to eat.  North Korea’s  elite  can afford  DVD players, boob jobs, and other kinds of jobsThey  can afford  drugs, too.  Today, elite  Pyongyang’s drug problem is second only to that in Hamheung:   

Considering North Korea’s cost of living, a family which consumes more than 100,000 won per month is living with worries of food. People who are falling into the trap of drugs are this class of people who earn more than 100,000 won per month.  Choi said, “People who earn more than 100,000 won have tried drugs at least once or twice. Choi believes that at least 1 out of 10 people in Hamheung’s upper class are drug addicts.  [Daily NK]

Drug use in North Korea doesn’t seem to be a function of ideology; rather, it is one of availability and money.  Since the famine and the resulting breakdown of the economic system, a few  members of the elite have become relatively wealthy as traders, and plenty of those traders are now addicts.  Recently, one member of a North Korean family that defected to Japan by sea was caught with a small quantity of meth.  The well-connected NGO Good Friends claims that a group of middle school students and their parents were recently caught running a meth lab.  Even a Hamheung University chemistry professor was arrested for running  a lab. 

The North Koreans must realize that their  military would seem to be the most fertile soil of all for drug problems. In North Korea, military service  usually means a ticket to  regular meals.  Although  there are exceptions, North Korea never has to worry about meeting its recruiting goals.  On the other hand, morale can’t be very  high, either. North Korean men often serve more than a decade in uniform, but  can’t get married or have girlfriends.  Look at some of the bleak posts where they serve, without the kind of on- or off-post entertainment available to U.S. or South Korean soldiers.  I spent five of my seven-plus years in the U.S. Army prosecuting and defending at courts-martial, and probably about 20% of  my cases were drug cases. Leaving aside the debate over “root causes,” the most common direct cause of drug abuse by American soldiers was probably boredom. Hunger, fatigue, draconian discipline, and sexual frustration probably make North Korean barracks fertile ground for drug abuse.


Sometimes, the dealers are brazen enough to resist arrest:

In yet another incident that occurred in Soonam district, Chongjin, North Hamkyung on February 8, safety agents, attempting to interdict drug sales, were attacked by drug-peddling youth. “The three safety agents scuffled with two youth possessing 50 grams of drugs and arrested them,” explained the newsletter.  [Daily NK]

When times are hard, however, official corruption is the inevitable result.  Another Daily NK report claims that a Hamheung police official was executed for leaking details of an ongoing drug investigation, for taking bribes from drug traffickers in a state trading company, and for allowing foreign films to be smuggled into the North. The city is now the target of a crackdown against “anti-socialist activities,” and the regime has decreed harsh new punishments for dealers:

In response to Chairman Kim Jong-Il’s recent and repeated calls for effective restraint on “˜Ice,’ authorities have revised existing rules on “˜Ice’ related crimes. People who are charged in “˜Ice’ related crimes are punished as follows: First, those who sell or trade more than 3 kg of “˜Ice’ are executed by firing squad. Second, those who deal more than 2 kg and under 3 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to a Labor Education Center (LEC) for life 무기노동교화형. Third, those who sell 1 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to LEC 노동교화형 for 10-12 years. And fourth, those who sell less that 1 kg of “˜Ice’ are sent to LEC for 5-10 years.  [Good Friends]

It’s hard to imagine how successful the crackdown will be when even the Hamheung police are  stoned on  philopon.  Another police official stands accused of drug dealing and  use in the border city of Hoeryong. Even the head of Hoeryong’s customs house is believed to have let drug shipments through.  Reports of corruption investigations are now so common as to suggest the possibility of a purge.  Good Friends reports that North Korea is now opening new mental hospitals to house a growing addict population. 


Just as North Korea’s drug problem is becoming impossible not to notice, diplomatic expediency  requires our State Department  to pretend anyway.   State’s new annual report claims that there is  no recent evidence of state-sponsored drug shipments, but does hint at North Korea’s own drug problem.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that small-scale trafficking and drug abuse in the DPRK itself and along its border with China continue. The China-DPRK border region is the only area in the world where there are continuing reports of drug trafficking involving DPRK nationals. Most reports indicate small-scale trafficking by individual North Koreans who cross the border into China. In some cases there are reports of slightly larger-scale trafficking by locally prominent individuals living along the border who misuse their modest positions of local influence in the ruling party to traffic in methamphetamine.  [U.S. Dep’t of State, 2008 Annual Report on Narcotics Trafficking]

Which makes an  odd contrast to this  April 2006  Senate testimony by another State official, detailing more than 50 incidents of drug trafficking by regime officials and diplomats since 1976.  It’s no mystery why the State Department is lying, but it is surprising that they’re being this brazen about it.   When asked by the press to clarify, here’s what a State Department official said:

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. With respect to North Korea, it seems to me that according to this report the drug trafficking at the state level has sharply dropped, but at the same time you take more of the counterfeit cigarette trafficking. And do you have any specific concern on North Korea’s drug trafficking and (inaudible) of cigarette trafficking?  [….]

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JOHNSON: [….] On anything having to do with North Korea, because of the nature of the society, it is difficult for us to accurately assess. So what we’re telling you on the drug trafficking issue is what we’ve been able to observe and infer based on what happens offshore. And while several years ago, we observed and inferred from significant seizures that there was drug trafficking going on, we have not observed that in the recent past. It does not mean that it’s not happening; it just means that based on the observations that we have been able to make — not in North Korea because we’re not there — that we don’t see continuing evidence. Absence of evidence is not anything more than absence of evidence….

[Press Conference, David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, February 29, 2008]


There probably is a grain of truth in this.  The Daily NK, relying on clandestine North Korean sources, agrees that North Korea’s drug production has decreased recently. Why? One of North Korea’s largest markets for illicit  drugs, Japan, recently ended most trade with North Korea.  Less lawful trade means  one less  pipeline for drug shipments. 

Japanese Coast Guard fires on a suspected North Korean drug ship.

The growth of another export market, in China, has created friction with the Chinese government.  Suspected North Korean drug sales to South Korea were overlooked during the Roh Administration.  That probably won’t last during Lee Myung-Bak’s term.

The Treasury Department’s sanctions in 2005 and 2006 also made it much more difficult to recover the profits from North Korea’s drug production that producers almost certainly had to consider other alternatives — either cutting back on production or flooding the local market with what they couldn’t sell abroad.  The economists Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard estimate that the sanctions did  serious damage to North Korea’s  illicit income:

We estimate that together with legal arms sales, revenue from contraband–including the production and trafficking of drugs, counterfeit cigarettes, smuggling of liquor and endangered-species parts, to name a few–may have accounted for as much as half of North Korea’s exports in the late 1990s but has fallen to roughly 15 percent in recent years due to sanctions. In the meantime, aid now finances 40 percent of imports. There are benefits to playing nice in the nuclear talks–or pretending to.  [Newsweek, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard]

Then there are internal factors:  the collapse of North Korea’s chemical industry, which forced chemists and technicians to find other ways to feed their families with their skills; and  the collapse of North Korea’s health system, which  means that citizens take illicit drugs to treat or dull the pain of illness.   

Corrupt border guards watch  as a North Korean smuggles an unknown cargo in from China.

Whatever the reason, North Korea appears to have suffered the same fate on a national scale that most drug dealers eventually suffer on an individual scale. The result may be a generation of addicts who will turn to crime if their suppy is ever interrupted. What can the regime do about the problem? Cutting back on the production of illegal drugs and the supply of precursor chemicals seems an obvious solution, but the regime is under terrific economic strain, and drugs probably supply a significant amount of the regime’s foreign exchange.  Besides, corruption and low morale among North Korean border guards means drugs can come in across the border.

The conditions that caused North Korea’s drug problem won’t begin to be reversed as long as Kim Jong Il remains in power.  The most likely result will be that drug use will be just  one of many  social problems South Korea will inherit when the regime finally collapses. 


  1. Which is most likely why the Bush admin flipflopped on the North: too many people cannot stand to think about “what if” the North were to collapse.

    In the end, we have clearly seen the US is unwilling to deal with that situation and has opted for Sunshine-lite.


  2. Which really just shows that the longer we delay the inevitable, the greater our problems. I can think of a slew of problems we still don’t face in rebuilding North Korea, but eventually might: HIV, loose nukes, banditry, and widespread heroin addiction to name just a few. The opacity of North Korea’s lock on information about places beyond Pyongyang conceals just how much decay there really is. If you want to see the extent of the contrast between P’yang and the rest of the country, start with Google Earth.


  3. What bothers me most is that the end result is still going to be collapse. At most, our gutter policy just delays the inevitable. It’s beyond sad…


  4. A drug-addicted, desperately poor population with public health problems (tuberculosis, malnutrition, AIDS) is not something I relishing on the safe streets of Seoul. I’m really hoping the border can be maintained, even if the regime is transformed.


  5. There’s going to have to be a transition period during which both internal and cross-border migration will have to be controlled. Even some North Korean defectors will tell you that.


  6. I’m working now so couldn’t read this all

    but..I guess this is about that the situation goes on N.korea

    read this one and I will try to find another one bye ^^