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To prevent war, talk to North Korea’s soldiers about rice, peace & freedom (updated: it happened again)

When the U.S. Army wants to breach a minefield, it deploys a Mine-Clearing Line Charge to blast a path through it with 1,750 pounds of C-4. The procedure looks like this:

Obviously, the North Koreans know this, so they can’t possibly think that planting a few more anti-personnel mines along the DMZ — right where U.S. and ROK forces will be watching and marking them — will do anything to stop an invasion that isn’t coming. I’m mildly surprised, by the way, to learn that this is the “first time North Korea was seen planting mines in Panmunjom since the inter-Korean armistice agreement in July 1953.” The mining even drew condemnation from the U.N. Command because “thousands of visitors — often school-aged children — take part in tours to the DMZ.”

Which brings us to the accelerating dissolution of the North Korean army‘s morale and discipline. If national defense doesn’t explain why North Korea is planting these mines, the speculation that North Korea is planting the mines “to block potential defection by its own soldiers” makes sense, especially given what’s been happening along North Korea’s border with China lately.


[2015: North Korean deserter in Chinese custody after his arrest]

Starting in 2014, and with escalating frequency, North Korean border guards have been crossing over into China. In some cases, they’ve dropped their weapons and fled. In others, they’ve carried their weapons across the border to rob or murder Chinese civilians. Last month, five of them got into a shoot-out with Chinese police, and at least one other soldier dropped his weapon and slipped away.

This week, New Focus reported that “on the early morning of the 17th of August, two officers stationed in Hyesan, Yanggang Province, left their guard posts, carrying weapons, and crossed the Amnok river.” After a brief exchange of fire with Chinese soldiers, the two were captured and sent back. If they’re still alive, they won’t be for long.


In the 12-year history of this blog, I’ve never seen so many reports of fratricide and desertion as I’ve seen over the last year. That isn’t because information is flowing out of North Korea more freely than it has in years past. Nor am I the only one to have noticed this new trend.

Border guards have fled North Korea before, of course, yet the regime survived. The largest such incident I’m aware of actually took place in February 2007, when a platoon of about 20 border guards deserted into China en masse, after coming under suspicion for smuggling. On rarer occasions, soldiers have also defected over the DMZ into South Korea. (This week, three North Koreans defected in a fishing boat off the coast of Incheon, and the ROK Navy rescued a 27-year-old North Korean man floating on a piece of styrofoam, off Yeonpyeong Island. Whether any of them were deserters or draft-dodgers remains to be seen.)

These reports aren’t just an embarrassment; they’re a threat to Pyongyang’s control over the movement of people, goods, and information across its borders. With the recent surge in high-level defections, Pyongyang has tried to further increase border security. Obviously, it can’t keep the prisoners in if the wardens keep running away. It’s bad enough that this is happening along the northern border. Were this to start happening along the DMZ, the scale of the embarrassment to the regime would increase at least ten-fold — hence, the mines.

The other interesting point I take from these reports is that the North Korean military’s control over its weapons and ammunition is not as effective as I’d been led to believe. I can foresee the rise of a domestic black market in stolen weapons and ammunition. 


[2015: a Chinese wanted poster for a North Korean army deserter]

So what has changed? Although it’s possible that sanctions have disrupted the regime’s finances, pay, and rations, I’m more inclined to suspect corruption, mismanagement, and the broader breakdown of loyalty and cohesion in North Korean society. Hwang Pyong-so isn’t dealing with corruption in the military’s commissary system effectively, which means that malnutrition has worsened in the ranks. 

I wonder if reports that China has shipped more food aid to North Korea are related to this. Historically, Chinese aid has come without monitoring conditions, which made it more susceptible to diversion to the military. Indeed, North Korea’s markets have become efficient and resilient enough that soldiers probably have even less to eat than most civilians (other people in state institutions, including orphanages, are probably suffering, too). The military’s poor food situation may also explain why the regime is confiscating so much food in South Hwanghae that farmers there are afraid they’ll starve.

North Korean soldiers have been malnourished for years, of course, but in the past, they could at least survive and even save up some money for civilian life by taking bribes from smugglers. But now, Kim Jong-un’s border crackdown has eliminated even that option for most of them. Even NCOs are finding it harder to get away with smuggling. Of course, rank still has its privileges for a few.

“Recently, high-ranking cadres from the State Security Department have been secretly trading narcotics with Chinese mafia,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation. “This is not to secure ‘loyalty funds’[for the leadership]; it’s purely about accumulating personal wealth.”

For example, the source added, cadres recently purchased 8 kg worth of crystal methamphetamine, otherwise known as crystal meth, in an inland region of North Korea before moving it over the border. “They bought the drugs for 9,000 RMB per kilogram and sold it to contacts in China for 14,000 RMB per kilogram,” the source said, describing how a single transaction yielded approximately 40,000 RMB (48 million KPW) in profits. [Daily NK]

Instead, more soldiers are turning to violent crime. We probably don’t hear about most of those cases, because the victims are North Koreans. They’re farmers and villagers whose homes and crops are pillaged, and women who are raped with impunity (the soldiers themselves are often raped with impunity, too). More recently, soldiers have turned to straight-up highway robbery.

Beset by malnutrition and impoverishment, a growing number of North Korean soldiers are resorting to violence and other criminal acts against civilians to obtain money and other valuables.

“The soldiers are attacking trucks on the Pyongyang-Wonsan and Pyongyang-Kaesong expressways. Groups of soldiers jump in front of the vehicles while brandishing rocks to get the driver to stop,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK August 17.

“Then they rob the passengers.”

When vehicles fail to slow down and attempt to pass through the threatening roadblock, factions of soldiers pummel them with rocks, shattering the glass and severely injuring everyone inside. In extreme cases, the source said, such attacks have been fatal. Some trucks have even veered off the road and tipped over as the drivers try to get away from the mobs.

Naturally, drivers are increasingly wary about braving the open road, not least because the state has done little to clamp down on the violence, opting to take the same approach it has to soldiers abandoning their posts, despite strict surveillance from defense security command officials, by choosing to ignore the crumbling order and discipline within the barracks.

This emboldens the soldiers to increase the frequency and severity of crimes against civilians. [Daily NK]

Not so long ago, the North Korean military was a highly professional force. Despite its hard conditions, the soldiers were well-fed, and military service was a highly desirable career. This month, RFA reported that the military is closing loopholes in the conscription rules to keep its numbers up.

mig 21 crash

[2010: The wreckage of a North Korean MiG-21 in China. The pilot, who was killed, may have attempted to defect.]

As long as I’ve written about North Korea, I’ve followed reports about the state of the North Korean military’s morale and discipline closely. This interest is a natural outgrowth of my own service on the other side of the Korean DMZ, as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The JAG Corps’s function is to help commanders maintain the “good order and discipline of the service.” (Iin my own case, I spent most of my service defending soldiers accused of serious crimes.)

My interest is also a function of the deep impression on me from Bob Collins’s now-famous briefing about the phases of North Korean collapse, which I heard as a young officer shortly after I arrived in South Korea. Collins’s briefing is often read as a Hegelian dialectic, but over the years, I’ve watched North Korea progress and regress through those stages in both directions, with substantial variations between regions.

What I’ve observed over the years is that within certain commands, the quality of the soldiers’ food, medical care, and leadership will decline; morale will fall; and soldiers who can will turn to corruption to survive. When the rot comes to the attention of the general staff in Pyongyang, they’ll rotate the failing units out and replace them with fresh ones. Presumably, units that are rotated out of front-line service are retrained or assigned to construction duties. But given the long enlistments (ten years and more) that North Korean soldiers serve, there will be a point at which most North Korean soldiers will be exposed to this abysmal morale.

It’s anyone’s guess what the end-state of this erosive process will be, but I doubt it will alter history until an officer gives the order to fire without result. For now, it mostly means that much of the North Korean military, including many of its front-line units, would be useless in a real war. Of course, the enemy the North Korean army is most likely to fight is the North Korean army, or crowds of protestors. The outcome of that war — and whether a second Korean War follows it — would hinge almost entirely on psychological factors. That, in turn, will not happen until isolated grievances and incidents are magnetized by political consciousness. 

A century ago, the call of “brot und frieden” ended World War One. Pray that this century, a message of “rice, peace, and freedom” can prevent Korean War Two.

~   ~   ~

Update: Look what I found in my Twitter feed after work today. Two armed North Korean soldiers slipped over the Chinese border, killed and butchered a donkey in some poor guy’s yard, “and fled into the night with the hunks of meat.” The Chinese border patrol, which ordinarily earns its pay hunting down defenseless women and kids — whom it sends back to die in the gulag — wasn’t amused:

The soldiers were chased off by a Chinese border patrol who opened fire. It is not known if any of the thieves were shot or killed during the incursion at the east end of the Great Wall of China in Liaoning province.

The raid took place in early August after the North Koreans crossed the Yalu river, which borders China, from Sinuiju city in North Phyongan province to steal food from Chinese homes near the Hushan Great Wall area, a popular tourist destination, according to sources close to the border patrol.

“(The incident) may mean the food shortage is severe even for soldiers, who supposedly have priority over supplies,” said another source.

In recent years, the food shortage crisis in North Korea is believed to have lessened. However, the source pointed out that some rural areas of North Korea are experiencing temporary food shortages, as they are forced to send eggs and meat to Pyongyang after a national campaign called “200-Day Battle” was initiated by the government from June this year. [Asahi Shimbun]

It’s unfortunate that Chinese civilians are now experiencing a small sample of the fear and pain their government has sown in North Korea for so long. For years, Beijing thought of North Korea as a problem for its enemies, so it enabled North Korea’s worst behavior. Now that its internal instability is spilling out of its borders, the Chinese general staff must be wondering whether another Syria is breaking out on their border.

The other dynamic that may be emerging is that middle-songbun North Koreans who rely on the state seem worse off than low-songbun North Koreans who rely on the markets, and who still have a stable food supply. Food confiscations seem to be intended to make sure the “wrong” people don’t starve. Judging by the results, it’s not going well.

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If North Korea can make fake Viagra for export, why can’t it make TB drugs for sick North Koreans?

Since the collapse of North Korea’s nominally free public health system, contagious diseases have spread widely, but only a lucky few North Koreans have been able to find medicine and medical care. Most of its people get by on whatever health care they can afford and whatever drugs they can find. A lucky few use retired doctors or doctors who moonlight after regular working hours. Some pay steep bribes to get access to care and medicine in state hospitals and clinics. Some buy medicine from market vendors, which may or may not be fake. The least fortunate rely on unlicensed healers, soothe their pain with methamphetamine or opium, or simply go without.

As the Washington Post recently discovered, however, if you’re a foreigner with hard currency, it’s not at all hard to buy medicine in Pyongyang. In May, a Post reporter visited the North Korean capital, possibly for the recent Workers’ Party congress, and “bought a box of the North ­Korean-produced medicine to treat erectile dysfunction.” He then “sent it to a Pfizer lab in Massachusetts to be tested.”

Surprisingly, each dose of Neo-Viagra — brown granules in a vial that looks like traditional Korean medicine — turned out to contain 50 milligrams of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. The little blue genuine Viagra pills come in 50- and 100-milligram doses.

“Lab analysis of the product known as ‘Neo-Viagra’ . . . did detect the presence of sildenafil,” said Yasar Yaman, Asia-Pacific director for Pfizer’s global security team. “Sildenafil is the active ingredient in Viagra, however this is a different formulation to the sildenafil found in authentic Pfizer tablets.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This finding should not have been too “surprising,” given longstanding rumors that North Korea sells many counterfeit products, including Viagra, as Fifield notes later. This was my favorite line in the story, by the way:

Pfizer couldn’t say whether the medicine would actually work or was safe because it had not conducted any clinical trials, and the reporter was not successful in convincing any male acquaintances to try it.

Pfizer told the Post that it was “‘currently reviewing’ whether to take any action against the North Korean manufacturers for patent or copyright infringement.” Pfizer’s lawyers will find that it is possible to sue a foreign government that engages in “commercial activity;” but historically, the plaintiffs who’ve obtained large civil judgments against the North Korean government for its terrorist acts have found it difficult to find North Korean assets to attach. A more promising strategy may be to identify and sue the Chinese and Russian companies that are selling the North Korean viagra and try to attach their assets.

Websites based in China and Russia have been selling Kumdang; Neo-Viagra; Tetrodocain, which purports to treat an array of diseases including tuberculosis and HIV; and Chonghwal, which is said to do the same job as Viagra. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

There is, needless to say, no independent scientific evidence for the effectiveness of North Korea’s cure for HIV. There is evidence that other North Korean “medicine” is toxic or harmful. An investigation by Radio Free Asia found that North Korean doctors in Tanzania have prescribed “medications containing high percentages of lethal heavy metals to patients.” According to an anonymously sourced story published by Radio Free Asia, North Korea has at least two factories that make supplements to enhance the performance of athletes, and it reports that those drugs are in high demand among the elites in Pyongyang for “recreational” use. RFA did not test a sample, but South Korea’s Ministry for Food and Drug Safety did analyze samples of North Korean-made supplements for sale in Asian countries and found that some “exceeded the permitted levels of hazardous heavy metal substances,” including mercury, arsenic, and lead. Another, called Keum Dang No. 2, contained “[n]arcotic components.” Vietnamese authorities suspended sale of the supplements following the reports.

Much later in her story, Fifield alludes in passing to the greater harm done to the North Korean people.

Indeed, North Korea’s pharmaceutical factories have largely ground to a halt along with the rest of the industrial sector, and many pharmaceutical products are imported from China to be sold in the markets. Medicines for chronic outbreaks are donated by humanitarian organizations, such as the drugs to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that are imported from South Korea.

I don’t want to move off this point just yet. Instead, I want to turn to another story by the same reporter from last March. Its tone is much darker than the quirky tale of the fake-but-effective Viagra and the plucky little regime that defies the world to sell boner pills to middle-aged guys with more money and libido than sense.

The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.

After the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions this month as punishment for North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launch, South Korea this week imposed direct sanctions of its own. But unlike the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently passed by Congress, the South Korean measures do not make a general exception for humanitarian aid.

That has hamstrung the ­Eugene Bell Foundation, which treats people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea but cannot get the export licenses it needs to ship medicine from the South to its treatment facilities in the North.

“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield, March 9, 2016]

Let’s stipulate that when South Korea temporarily blocked that shipment of tuberculosis drugs, it made a misstep. U.N. sanctions emphasize that sanctions should be administered to avoid adverse impact on humanitarian aid programs. Blocking humanitarian aid shipments does nothing to help enforce sanctions, and only plays into the hands of dishonest or ill-informed criticisms that sanctions only hurt the North Korean people. The Post’s headline for that story played into that narrative perfectly. It read, “North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk as sanctions hamper medicine shipments.” (Emphasis mine.)

The best I can say for this headline — reporters don’t necessarily write their own headlines — is that it isn’t entirely false. As narrowly applied to South Korea’s unilateral sanctions, it was true at that time. It’s also true that U.N. and U.S. sanctions have had indirect effects on humanitarian aid, but only for reasons that the North Korean government itself could easily avoid. Because North Korea co-mingles its proliferation-related transactions with the transactions it uses for other, non-sanctioned purposes, aid groups report that banks have also hesitated to process transactions related to aid shipments, too. That’s unfortunate.

It’s also unfortunate that the aid groups that operate in North Korea under the watchful eyes of state minders — and who must keep the recent examples of Regina Feindt and Sandra Suh in mind — use those delays as excuses to blame sanctions for the hardships of the North Korean people. What makes that criticism dishonest — even unethical — is those same groups’ consistent refusal to hold the North Korean government responsible for the deliberate policies and priorities that impoverish the North Korean people to begin with. You will often hear NGOs criticize U.S. or U.N. sanctions for hampering shipments of TB drugs, but you will never hear these same NGOs call on Kim Jong-un to produce TB drugs instead of Viagra, supplements, methamphetamine (see also), or narcotics to sell for a profit.

The press also bears its share of blame for failing to raise legitimate questions about that narrative. One of those questions is why a regime that can afford yachts, jewelry, and luxury sedans can’t afford to import medicine. Another is why a regime that can make Viagra to raise cash can’t make TB drugs for its sick citizens. In that light, headlines that blame sanctions for denying the North Korean people medicine — medicine their own government has the means to make and provide, but has chosen not to — are misleading at best. 

I’m not a pharmaceutical expert, so the assumption I’m making is that it’s no more difficult to make anti-TB drugs than it is to make Viagra. I invite readers to question that assumption. What’s clear is that Pyongyang has the means to produce advanced pharmaceuticals when it smells a cash profit. Unfortunately, the welfare of the North Korean people is a lower priority than whatever priorities Kim Jong-un has in mind for the revenue he earns by exporting his country’s health care workers and drugs for sale to foreign buyers. 

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North Koreans need food & medicine, not Guus Hiddink’s “futsal” stadium

hiddinkSouth Koreans remember Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink as the man who led their team to a successful performance in the 2002 World Cup. But when the history of a united Korea is written, North Koreans are likely to remember him less fondly. Hiddink has just returned from Pyongyang, where he signed a deal to help Kim Jong-Un build yet another expensive leisure facility that falls low on the average North Korean’s hierarchy of needs — a new “futsal” stadium:

“It was a short but a good visit,” [Hiddink] told reporters at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul. “We talked about installing a Dream Field. I was eager to do one or more even in the North. We signed an agreement that as soon as possible — hopefully before the summer — we’ll have the first Dream Field in Pyongyang.”

The Dutchman said he was already looking forward to his next visit to North Korea, possibly next summer.

“I challenged them to start building what we agreed,” he added. “We will supply, as soon as possible, the necessary equipment and then they can start. If you want something, you can do it very fast.” [Yonhap]

In case you were about to ask:

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.32.26 AM

The U.N. World Food Program’s 2015 needs assessment gives us a better idea of that hierarchy, for those North Koreans who are excluded from its leisure class:

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.38.14 AM

These figures, which rely on regime-supplied statistics, may overstate or understate the problem to some degree, and the results of various U.N. surveys vary, depending on how one measures North Koreans’ misery. For example, this 2013 U.N. survey found that 84% of North Koreans have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. Earlier this year, the U.N. reminded us that many of North Korea’s children will feel the effects of malnutrition for the rest of their lives.

More than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the United Nations said Friday.

The report illustrates a major domestic challenge for North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

A team from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reporting from North Korea, found that 2.8 million North Koreans “are in need of regular food assistance amidst worrying levels of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity.” It said 4 percent of North Korean children are acutely malnourished. [AP]

While North Korea’s mass casualty famine probably ended around 2000, there were reports of famine on a much smaller scale in 2012, and harvests are believed to have fallen again this year. It’s almost certain that at least some North Koreans who lose their state rations or the support of their families continue to starve to death, out of sight and out of mind, even now.

There is also the complete breakdown of North Korea’s health care system, to the extent that people who can’t afford to bribe doctors into treating them have turned to opium and methamphetamine as alternative medicines.

Guus Hiddink’s futsal stadium would join a long list of new leisure facilities for Pyongyang’s elite, including a dolphin aquarium, a 3-D cinema, a water park, and a floating buffet — amenities that are beyond the imagination of most North Koreans. In 2013, Kim Jong-Un reportedly spent $300 million on a leisure and sports facilities, including a ski resort filled with equipment imported in violation of U.N. sanctions. That same year, His Corpulency spent $644 million on luxury items like flat-screen TVs, sauna equipment from Germany, Swiss watches, and expensive booze. Also that same year, the World Food Program asked foreign donors to contribute $200 million toward a two-year program to feed 2.4 million North Korean women, children, and infants — just a fraction of those in need.

Given that the U.N. Security Council banned the export of luxury goods with after the passage of Resolution 1718 in 2006, can this possibly be legal? Due to the uneven and dilatory implementation of the resolution, it’s almost impossible to be sure. The UN’s tragically incomplete (but non-exclusive) list, still not filled out nine years later, specifically mentions only jewelry, yachts, luxury cars, and racing cars. The EU list prohibits “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports,” and “[a]rticles and equipment for billiard, automatic bowling, casino games and games operated by coins or banknotes,” but would theoretically allow a European supplier to sell Kim Jong-Un a curling rink, jet skis, or bobsleds. The U.S. Commerce Department’s list of luxury goods is the broadest, and includes any “[r]ecreational sports equipment.” Theoretically, then, Treasury could block any dollar payments to facilitate Hiddink’s project. (The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act would cut this semantic Gordian Knot by adopting the U.S. Commerce Department list as its definition.)

The obscenity of a nominally socialist state, which monopolizes most of the nation’s resources, squandering the meals of starving kids on luxuries for a tiny elite is the reason why the U.N. adopted the luxury goods ban. I’ll take that argument a step further: it’s a crime against humanity — specifically, what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” By knowingly helping Kim Jong-Un to misallocate resources that belong to the North Korean people, and which should be used to fulfill their rights to food and medical care, Hiddink makes himself an accessory to this crime, and places himself before the judgment of history, and perhaps, one day, of the law itself.

If the UN can’t define “luxury goods,” if the EU can’t interpret the UN resolution’s plain language to address the evil it was meant to remedy, and if the U.S. won’t enforce its own regulations, then the good people of Europe and the Netherlands must condemn and ostracize Hiddink for his appalling ethical misadventure.

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A guerrilla health care system for North Korea’s poor

Gullible leftists and U.N. nincompoops who take North Korea’s claims of socialist equality at face value love to bleat about the wonders of its free universal health care, but those bleats have little basis in reality. A 2010 study by Amnesty International found that Pyongyang provides less for the care of its non-elite citizens per capita than almost any other nation on earth:

The North Korean government has failed to adequately address the country’s ongoing food shortages since the 1990s. This failure has led to the current critical situation in which the population faces severe health problems associated with malnutrition. Compounding these problems, North Korea’s government has failed to provide adequate resources for its health care system, which as a result is wholly unable to cope with the growing number of illnesses and diseases of a population weakened by hunger.
According to the WHO, North Korea spent less than US $1 per person in 2006. [….]
In fact, North Korea had one of the lowest recorded per capita total expenditure on health in 2006 of any country in the world.105 The state’s paltry expenditure on health, in spite of the urgent need for medical training, access to medicines and public health education, violates North Korea’s obligation to provide for the basic health of its population. [Amnesty International]

Outside Pyongyang, clinics lack basic medicines and supplies, and care is available only to those who pay for it with cigarettes, alcohol, or cash. Doctors often receive little or no pay, so they demand payment from their impoverished patients instead. According to one refugee interviewed by Amnesty:

“People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment. If you don’t have money, you die. People without money just have to hope that they don’t get sick or can get better on their own. Doctors will not treat patients without compensation, especially for surgery. Nothing is free anymore.” [Amnesty]

Sick people who can’t get medicine are forced to rely on traditional medicine, or use methamphetamine or heroin as substitutes. Women, including those whose circumstances have forced them into prostitution, take heroin in the false hope that it’s a contraceptive. Communicable diseases (1234) spread widely. Tuberculosis is rife; even in the army, it goes untreated until the soldier is sent home to die. Medicines donated by aid agencies show up for sale in markets. While Pyongyang exports doctors to Africa and the Middle East, inside North Korea, the demand for medical services so exceeds the supply that some sick people seek out unqualified healers instead. The actual doctors who remain have gone into business for profit, and not unreasonably; after all, doctors need to eat, too:

“More recently, there have been doctors who diagnose patients and others who fill in prescriptions. The medicine is then sold to patients, so trade in this field is growing.”

This trend was corroborated by two additional sources in North Pyongan Province.

The most crucial element in medical treatment is an accurate diagnosis, which is why so many people in the past had died from cirrhosis and ascites. However, recently those numbers have been falling thanks to a greater wealth of medical experts offering services through the back door, according to the source. [Daily NK]

Some of these providers are retired doctors from state hospitals. Others are unlicensed healers.

“The free medical system has been lost on people, leaving them without any treatment unless they pay up bribes at state hospitals. Struggling to even receive a proper diagnosis, people have been seeking out these doctors,” the source said. This has led to the build-up of a much more structured, systematic, and specialized market for health care.

Some Korean medicine doctors who have earned great reputations see patients lining up in front of their doors from the crack of dawn. They charge around 10 USD for a diagnosis, and the cost for prescriptions varies widely depending on the medicine required for treatment, according to the source. [Daily NK]

The regime periodically cracks down on this trade, but now that even high officials have begun relying on free market medical care, they can’t completely suppress it, either.

This evidence not only refutes the unserious narrative of North Korea as a model for public health services, it also raises more serious questions of whether foreign aid programs that channel their funds, supplies, and medicines through the state work. The beneficial impact of these programs is probably greater than zero, but they certainly haven’t been a broad solution North Korea’s public health crisis. It suggests that donors need a better use for their scarce aid resources than pouring them into the black hole of Pyongyang.

As is the case with North Korea’s food crisis, the market-based solutions that North Koreans have found are both a symptom of the problem and a potential solution to it. One wonders: if the regime allocates medical services based on the patient’s political caste, and if this has, de facto, further reallocated services based on one’s economic class, why can’t NGOs find ways to pay North Korean doctors to treat the patients whose need is greatest — starting with North Korea’s orphaned children? We know that it’s possible (though it has become more difficult) to send money to specific North Korean recipients. If so, a trusted intermediary, such as the stay-behind relative of a refugee in the South, can be taught to screen patients, and to pay doctors to see and treat the patients whose need is greatest.

This certainly isn’t a long-term solution. Paying doctors to treat some poor patients will put additional demand on a limited supply of providers, and drive up the cost that other poor North Koreans pay for them. Because the regime is only willing to provide so many doctors, it would also draw more unqualified healers into the medical services market. That’s why it will eventually be necessary to increase the supply of medical providers. How can that be done in a closed system like North Korea’s? One solution may be telemedicine, which American doctors are already using to diagnose and treat patients in distant, far-flung, underserved communities now, and which NGOs are also exploring as a way to provide medical services in other poor countries.

In the case of North Korea, the extra doctors might be volunteer physicians in South Korea, the United States, or Europe. It is already possible (though, again, increasingly difficult) for North Koreans to call across their country’s northern border by piggybacking on Chinese cell networks. There is no good reason why South Korean cell networks couldn’t also expand into North Korea, and open a second front in the war against Pyongyang’s information blockade. If the network existed, the markets would soon provide the phones that could utilize that network. In the same way that North Korea’s guerrilla financial system can send money to recipients inside North Korea, the market could develop the capacity to send medicines, even prescriptions, to those in need of them.

There are, of course, technological challenges: telemedicine requires the doctor to be able to speak with the patient, and often, to see high-resolution imagery of the patient to observe symptoms. In the short term, full-service telemedicine is probably asking too much. Pyongyang is cracking down hard on North Koreans who make calls over the Chinese network, and one assumes that it would crack down even harder on those who used a South Korean network. But whatever the limitations on the imagery and video those phones could take and upload, it would be a vast improvement over what North Koreans have now: nothing.

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Brit pleads guilty to smuggling North Korean meth into U.S.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has issued a press release announcing the guilty plea of Scott Stammers, for conspiring to smuggle 100 kilograms of 99% pure North Korean meth from the Philippines to New York. The press release implies, but does not directly state, that the North Korean government itself knowingly sold the meth to Chinese gangsters, who sold the drugs to Stammers.

As Tan Lim explained, his criminal organization was the only one currently able to obtain methamphetamine from North Korea: “Because before, there were eight [other criminal organizations]. But now only us, we have the NK [i.e., North Korea] product. . . . [I]t’s only us who can get from NK.” Tan Lim further explained that, because of recent international tensions, the North Korean government had destroyed some methamphetamine labs, leaving behind only the labs of Tan Lim’s organization: “And all the, the NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed. . . . To show Americans that they [the North Korean government] are not selling it any more, they burned it. Then they transfer to another base.” In anticipation of these geo-political complications, Tan Lim noted that his organization had stockpiled one ton of North Korean methamphetamine in the Philippines for storage. [USAO, SNDY]

The ultimate retailer was to be the Outlaw motorcycle gang. Stammers is now looking at a minimum sentence of 10 years and a potential life sentence. I previously posted on the arrests of Stammers and the other defendants here.

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“Arsenal of Terror,” 2d ed.: N. Korea paid dope dealers $40K to kill Hwang Jang Yop

South Korean prosecutors have indicted three South Korean nationals, identified only by the surnames “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang,” for “bringing in methamphetamine from North Korea and attempting to assassinate” Hwang Jang-Yop, North Korea’s highest-ranking defector until his death in 2010. Let’s unpack these two criminal conspiracies one at a time, starting with the meth:

The 69-year-old, identified only by his family name Bang, and two others have been detained for producing 70 kilograms of methamphetamine at a North Korean factory in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, in June and July of 2000, a prosecutor at the Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office said.

They were suspected of being contacted through another South Korean, identified by his surname Lee who died in 2004, in 1996 by a North Korean agent in China who proposed Bang and the two colleagues bring the raw materials and equipment to North Korea to produce meth.

They allegedly traveled to North Korea several times with the aid of North Korean agents and made 70 kilograms of meth there.

“It is the first time North Korean agents were found to have been involved in the production of methamphetamine, although there have been rumors North Korea tried to get foreign currency by selling meth,” the prosecutor said, asking for anonymity.

Bang and his colleagues were given 35 kilograms of meth by the North, prosecutors said, but added they have not yet found evidence the meth was distributed in South Korea. [Yonhap]

The prosecution believes the men transported “the raw materials and manufacturing equipment required for producing methamphetamine to North Korea via China in July 2000,” including “a cooling system and other goods.” There’s no way three South Koreans could have ferried this kind of gear into North Korea, much less been present at a meth factory there, without the knowledge and consent of the North Korean government. Indeed, the indictment suggests that North Korean agents were directly involved in the entire conspiracy, from beginning to end, and had the financial backing of the state.

That stands in contrast to the November 2013 indictment of a sordid group of bikers and killers for conspiring to import highly pure North Korean meth into New York. That indictment did not directly link the transaction to the North Korean government, but was arguably consistent with Sheena Chestnut Greitens’ conclusion that North Korea had opted to privatize and tax its drug manufacturing business, and outsource the transportation. The activities alleged in the indictment of “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang” spanned a time period between 1998 and 2010, and may call for a reconsideration of that conclusion.

Now, let’s turn to the plot to kill Hwang Jang-Yop. Reports quoting the indictment claim that “Bang” collaborated with North Korean agents who were plotting to assassinate Hwang. The dope-dealers worked with North Korean agents on the plot for about a year, which seems like a leisurely pace for whacking a guy who’s already 86.

Seoul prosecutors said the 62-year-old South Korean initially came into contact with a North Korean spy in September 2009 in Beijing and continued to meet that agent on 10 more occasions to discuss the homicide plan. [….]

To prepare for the assassination, the 62-year-old is suspected to have handed over photographs he or she took of Hwang’s residence in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, to the North Korean spy. The person is also thought to have tried to hire criminal gang members for the actual murder. [Joongang Ilbo]

Hwang died in 2010, at age 87. Of natural causes, so they say.

In case you’re keeping count, this would be either the second or the third plot to kill Hwang that has been reported in the press, depending on whether the name of the North Korean agent “Bang,” “Kim,” and “Hwang” worked with was Ri Dong Sam.

As I noted in “Arsenal of Terror,” in June of 2010, Major Kim Myong-Ho and Major Dong Myong-Gwan of the Reconnaissance General Bureau pled guilty to a plot to assassinate Hwang Jang-Yop in a South Korean court, which sentenced each defendant to ten years in prison. The defendants told prosecutors that Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-Chol, the head of the RGB, personally assigned them to the assassination mission in November of 2009.

KBS adds the very interesting detail that defendant “Hwang” “allegedly received an order from North Korean agents in 2004 in China to assassinate a German human rights activist.” I can’t imagine who else that could possibly be but Norbert Vollertsen, who was then at the peak of his prominence.

In “Arsenal of Terror,” I examined the legal definitions of “support” and “international terrorism,” along with the history of what acts the State Department had previously cited as support for international terrorism. I found that attempts to assassinate defectors, dissidents, and activists abroad fit the legal standard. If the North Koreans plotted to kill Vollertsen, it would be the first case I’m aware of in which they targeted a third-country human rights activist for assassination.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

The three defendants also engaged in some other forms of peace activism as well:

The three are also suspected of handing over military information from 2009 to 2013 to the North’s agents. 62-year-old Kim allegedly provided information on where gas storage tanks and combined heat and power plants are located and gave a North Korean agent a 2013 arms almanac from the South. Another member, Hwang, was revealed to have traveled in and out of North Korea via China in 2004 in order to kill a German human rights activist. [Daily NK]

According to The Daily NK, the charges include “manufacturing and trading narcotics” and violations of the National Security Law. It’s a reminder that while the National Security Law is certainly overbroad when used to punish non-violent speech, it also has other, more necessary provisions to punish espionage and violent crimes. Full repeal and the status quo are both the wrong answer. The law should be amended.

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Open Sources, August 7, 2014

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NORTH KOREA, WHICH WAS REMOVED from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 for promising to give up its nuclear weapons program, is quietly expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities, and not-so-quietly threatening to test more missiles and a nuclear weapon.

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HACK NORTH KOREA has chosen a winning technology for breaking down North Korea’s information blockade:

The winning team, which featured a pair of teenage siblings who flew in from Virginia for the event, presented a prototype of a system that could allow North Koreans to get real-time information more easily inside the country, Mr. Gladstein said.

The team proposed using micro-radio devices the size of credit cards, which they said could pick up signals from the South and which could be delivered into the country by smuggling or balloon drop.

Alongside this, the team would target South Korean satellite television broadcasts aimed at China, which pass over the North. Using what they described as “easily concealable” satellite receivers, North Koreans would be able to directly plug their televisions into the receivers. [Wall Street Journal]

Chad O’Carroll’s report for NK News adds the most delectable detail of all — the winners were “a three person Korean-American team who requested to remain anonymous.” If the winners are reading this, congratulations. I wish you success.

The Human Rights Foundation has put out press releases in the event in both English and Korean, and where it notes that this year’s event is just one part of an ongoing campaign called “Disrupt North Korea.” That campaign could easily be more consequential than anything the U.S. or South Korean governments have ever done to promote reform in North Korea.

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SPEAKING OF SUBVERSIVE COMMUNICATIONS, Radio Free Asia reports that North Koreans have really taken to Kakao Talk. The real killer app for North Korea may be combining satellite communications with chatting and instant messaging.

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ANDREA BERGER ANALYZES North Korea’s links to Hamas and Hezbollah, at 38 North.

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LEO BYRNE INVESTIGATES Kim Jong Un’s Mercedez Pullman limousines, and the sanctions that were likely broken to import them.

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MORE ON THOSE POSSIBLE IMPORTS of North Korean gold, via The New Yorker.

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REUTERS HAS MORE INFO on the arrest of American Jeffrey Fowle in North Korea.

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CHINA EXECUTES alleged North Korean drug dealer:

A North Korean national has been executed in China for smuggling and trading drugs, court documents showed Thursday, following the executions of three South Korean drug dealers in the country this week.

A 32-year-old man identified by his surname Oh was executed for selling 3.75 kilograms of methamphetamine he had smuggled into China from North Korea between October and November 2010, according to a district court in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin Province. [Yonhap]

This will be used to support arguments that the China-North Korea relationship is under strain, and that may be the case, but I take nothing from the Chinese government at face value.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY is now almost as unpopular as George W. Bush’s was at the same point in his presidency. Obama wouldn’t have to replicate Bush’s interventionist excesses to recover from this. He could start by ignoring Gaza; he could then direct the State Department to concentrate on alliance diplomacy in Asia, direct Treasury to strengthen sanctions against North Korea and Iran, and direct DOD and CIA to arm and train the Ukrainians, and to support a reawakening and broad autonomy for Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.

If the President chooses not to recover from his de facto isolationism, then foreign policy deserves to be one of the top issues in this year’s mid-term elections.

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Was Kim Jong Un behind the plot to smuggle meth into New York?

Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York released an indictment of five men for conspiring to smuggle North Korean methamphetamine to New York. The meth was of exceptionally high quality — between 96% and 99% pure, depending on the source — and in large amounts. An initial “dry run” transaction consisted of 30 kilograms, later seized by Thai and Filipino authorities. The next shipment would have weighed in at 100 kilograms, for which the dealers offered to pay $6 million, which is enough to buy a lot of baby formula (just kidding!).

The suspects were nationals of Britain, the Philippines, and, naturally, China. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the five suspects were all arrested in Thailand in September, and have since been extradited to the United States. That means that at least some of them are likely to reveal more about the plot in exchange for leniency in charging or sentencing.

Separately, a former U.S. Army soldier, Joseph Hunter, has been charged with leading the international drug trafficking ring that conspired to smuggle the dope, and for conspiring to whack a DEA agent. Once the drugs arrived in New York, they were to have been retailed through a biker gang, the Outlaw Motorcycle Club. We may learn more about this in the future; according to ABC News, “The investigation is ongoing and is expected to yield additional arrests in the coming weeks.”

North Korea has already reacted to the report in its customary fashion, claiming that it’s all a smear campaign. Still, the evidence there is to support the North Korean government’s involvement isn’t clear. Either the North’s control over its own infrastructure has eroded more than we realize, or the regime has gotten good at structuring drug deals to make them plausibly deniable. In recent years, we’ve seen less evidence of state-sponsored drug trafficking by North Korea, and more evidence that North Koreans whom the state taught to cook meth years ago have turned pro. North Korea itself is now flooded with meth. The other night, a young defector told me that smoking or snorting “bingdu” has become as common a social custom in the North as a toast over dinner (which must be at least a slight exaggeration).

There are a few pieces of evidence that suggest, but do not prove, that the government of North Korea itself manufactured and exported this meth.

The first, of course, is its prior history of state-sponsored drug dealing, although, as mentioned, the evidence for this has trailed off in recent years.

The second is the volume of the drug. The sales listed in the indictment totaled 130 kilograms, and the indictment says that one of the suppliers, “Reyes,” has stockpiled a ton of meth in “Country 2,” identified here as the Philippines. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could manufacture that volume of an illegal substance without the cooperation, at the very least, of the government. The same can be said of the drug’s purity.

For about a year, I prosecuted meth cases in what was then America’s meth capital, San Bernardino County, California. For a while, I even had my own informal network of informants. I made friends with the cops in Barstow, who told me all about how meth is made, and showed me their albums of photos of meth labs hidden behind fake walls and inside semi trailers parked in the desert. Cooking meth requires the maker to obtain large amounts of precursor chemicals, which would be especially hard to obtain in commercial amounts in North Korea. The odors associated with even small-scale meth production are overpowering and easily detectable. Cops often find meth labs just by the smell (“like a dirty cat box,” as the cops described it). Then, there’s the risk and danger of working with toxic and explosive chemicals. In other words, it would have been very difficult to manufacture large volumes of high-quality meth in North Korea without the cooperation of the government, although I can’t say it would have been impossible.

As a prosecutor, I became convinced that meth is as addictive and dangerous as cocaine. It makes the user manic, paranoid, violent, and prone to extremely dangerous behavior. Two soldiers I prosecuted for meth stole their roommates’ cars and crashed them at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour. The physical effects of the drug, and of the other toxic chemicals it often contains, soon become visible on the faces of meth users.

The indictment, which you can download here, offers a few other clues, none of them conclusive. It repeatedly says that the meth was “from North Korea” or “North Korean,” but does not say anything about the affiliation of the original supplier or the method of delivery. (You may suspect political motives, and there may be some, but smart prosecutors never allege unnecessary facts in their indictments. The more they allege, the more they have to prove.) This is the most intriguing clue:

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Let’s assume, for now, that Ye Tiong Tan Lim isn’t just making this all up. If I’m reading this right, the regime destroyed its more visible production facilities and moved its operations into less visible ones, to fool our satellite imagery analysts. The statement implies that the regime was the wholesaler, but the statement doesn’t rule out the possibility that private dope dealers or rogue officials were the manufacturers.

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The language implies that North Korea was up to some sort of provocation, probably a missile or nuke test, and that this was creating unwanted attention. But why would that be a problem for a hidden meth lab? Surely U.S. satellites would not be watching meth labs in North Korea. What occurred to me later, however, was that they might be watching North Korean shipping traffic in harbors like Nampo, Hungnam, or Chongjin, which carry plenty of things that have national security interest.

Another compelling clue may be the fact that one of the co-conspirators had stockpiled a ton of the meth in the Philippines, from where it would have been sent to Thailand, and then shipped to the United States by boat. There are no direct flights between North Korea and the Philippines. One possibility is that North Korean drug gangs smuggled the meth to China, and that Chinese gangsters then shipped it to the Philippines. Without a trans-shipment point in between, the drugs would have had to go to from North Korea to the Philippines by ship. The officers and crews of North Korean ships are carefully selected for their loyalty. Note, for example, that the captain of the MiG-smuggling ship intercepted in Panama tried to kill himself when his ship was boarded. It’s unlikely that rogue smugglers in North Korea could have arranged for the use of a ship. In the Pong Su case, North Korean drug smugglers used a freighter to drop their high-quality heroin along a remote stretch of Australian coastline, where it was moved to shore in small, inflatable boats. The use of a drop ship would be consistent with North Korea’s past M.O.

After all this point-by-point speculation, the involvement of the North Korean government won’t remain a mystery to those with access to the financial forensics. The payments for the drugs would have left a trail that will end up in a bank account somewhere. Once the feds know how the money moved — which seems likely, given the extradition of the five suspects — they’ll be able to figure out whether the persons receiving payment for the drugs were connected to the regime. Such conclusions aren’t often revealed to members of the public in detail, but a careful examination of witness testimonies before Congress should give clues to what administration insiders believe.

And who knows where else that part of the investigation could lead. After all, Banco Delta Asia began as a crackdown on the laundering of counterfeit currency.

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Open Sources, Jan. 17, 2012

NORTH KOREA PERESTROIKA WATCH:  First it was lipstick, now it’s bicycles.  Where are Christine Ahn and Christine Hong to defend North Korean women against sexism?

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I’VE HAD A LOT TO SAY ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S METH PROBLEM, but this article on North Koreans smoking pot was interesting.  You wouldn’t think pot would catch on in a place without freely available snacks, and where being mellow is strictly forbidden.

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SOME TEA-LEAF-READERS made a really big deal out of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, and some language in it that they interpreted as conciliatory.  I found those interpretations to be rather strained, and I wonder what they have to say about this exceptionally long and hostile KNCA missive about the U.N. Command, “south Korea,” and alleged Yankee imperialist plans to dominate Asia.  It ends with a definitive statement that North Korea will never give up its “deterrence against all forms of war,” which tea-leaf-readers usually interpret to mean nuclear weapons programs.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA SIGNS BILL to help North Korean kids.  The bill, as you recall, drew fierce opposition from Christine Ahn’s comrades in the struggle, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Christine Hong, the latter writing just about the most rambling, disingenuous, and poorly sourced thing 38 North has ever stooped to publish.  (I wove my response into my review of “Escape from North Korea.”)  Congratulations to Young Kim of Rep. Ed Royce’s staff for spearheading this, and to Rep. Royce for showing, so early in his tenure as Chairman of House Foreign Affairs, what an effective champion he could yet become.

Reuters offers this must-read profile of Royce, who certainly didn’t strike me as especially low key in the February 2007 hearing where Chris Hill did his Joe Isuzu act to sell Agreed Framework II to a skeptical House Foreign Affairs Committee.  According to the Reuters piece, Royce intends to make Iran sanctions his number one priority, but in this blog post, Royce appears to advocate the same approach to North Korea.

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NEW NORTH KOREAN SLOGAN:  “Let us live not merely for today but for tomorrow!”  But doesn’t that imply that North Korea is less than an earthly paradise today?  In America, we have Grass Roots who tell you to live for today.  In North Korea, grass roots are something you eat while you’re living for a tomorrow you may not have.

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North Korea’s Medicinal Methampetamine

Open News reports that North Korea has launched another crackdown on drugs:

A source in Hyaesan, Yanggand Province reported on the 11th, January that “Kim Jong-eun has ordered the army and security forces to combine and form a task force dedicated to cracking down on the abuse of drugs in North Korea in the years “first battle. The new body began its activities on the fifth of the month.”

I think they meant to say “Yaggang,” aka “Ryanggang.”

Referring to the policy as a “battle” indicates that all efforts will be mobilized in its undertaking. Such a battle against drugs in the North indicates that the situation has reached the point where the regime sees the problem as a threat to its existence. “Drug abuse is spreading amongst the youth and the establishment of this drug combatting force is Kim Jong-eun’s prescription to medicate worsening public opinion,” added the source. “It’s nothing less than a declaration of a war on drugs.”

“Up until now any drug criminality and abuse has been dealt with by the Ministry of Public Security (the equivalent of South Korea’s police force). Significantly, the Security Department (the equivalent of the South’s National Intelligence Service) will now take the lead in concert with the military. The security apparatus taking a leading role in managing the drug problem is a clear indication that the problem is now perceived as a systemic issue,” the source went on. “There are periodic crackdowns on drugs in the North but this is the first time the State Security Department has been mobilized.”

I assume most readers of this blog have heard that North Korea was once a major exporter of illicit drugs, especially methamphetamine and heroin. Recently, however, the North Korean state’s dope industry appears to have collapsed along with the rest of its industries. North Korean diplomats are still getting caught smuggling dope on occasion, but most of the available evidence suggests that North Korea’s illicit drug exports have dropped off sharply. This may be a function, in part, of Japan cutting off most trade with North Korea, which probably also cut off some lucrative smuggling routes. In any event, there were still plenty of North Koreans who had the knowledge, the connections, and the economic desperation to go into the dope business on their own. The collapse of North Korea’s medical care system (Margaret Chan’s views notwithstanding) gave them a domestic market. North Koreans who couldn’t get simple cold remedies and pain killers turned to meth and heroin instead. And so one day, South Korea will have to reunify with a broken nation whose myriad public safety and health problems may include tens of thousands of drug dealers, smugglers, addicts. Open News adds:

Drug abuse in North Korea has been on the increase. According to North Korea Ministry of Health data confirmed by an Open Radio correspondent, more than 200,000 North Koreans had used Philopon more than once as of December 2008. The numbers of those who had used opium in the treatment of some sort of illness had reached 500,000. However, taking into account those not included in the Department of Health’s figures the number of North Koreans using Philopon or opium could be higher.

I’m suspicious of the origin of those statistics, but they sound plausible. And they’re staggering for a nation of 23 million or so, especially for such a tightly controlled society.

You can read more about North Korea’s drug problem here.

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At Last, Plan B

This afternoon, the Treasury Department finally announced its long anticipated sanctions against North Korea, in the form of a sweeping new executive order. The order, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, authorizes the blocking of assets of “any person” providing what Treasury calls “material support” for North Korea’s WMD proliferation, money laundering, counterfeiting, trade in luxury goods, bulk cash smuggling, and pretty much everything North Korea does that violates UNSCR 1718 or 1874, or the U.S. Criminal Code.

In addition to the new order, Treasury also imposed new sanctions against several North Korean entities under the existing Executive Order 13382. Below the fold, I’ve pasted the text of the Executive Order, President Obama’s letter forwarding the EO to the Speaker of the House, two Treasury press releases, and some remarks by OFK favorite Stuart Levey, all of which I’ve archived here to aid your research and mine.

My initial reaction is that the new EO gets it just right. It’s narrowly targeted at North Korea’s illicit activities, but it’s also broad enough to cover the main ones — arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, currency and pharmaceutical counterfeiting, and the squandering of its resources on luxury goods while North Korean children starve in the streets. This is a tough-yet-refined version of the Plan B I’ve been advocating since its earliest draft in 2006.

Here is the key language:

All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, including any overseas branch, of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

(i) the persons listed in the Annex to this order; and

(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

The EO then goes on to describe a wide range of activities, assistance, and financial activities that could support North Korea’s illicit activities, including the assets of any entity held by a U.S. person, or within U.S. jurisdiction. This means that if a Chinese entity is involved in helping a blacklisted North Korean entity acquire missile components, Treasury could freeze the Chinese entity’s tainted assets based in the U.S., assets of its U.S. subsidiaries, its assets in U.S. banks, or potentially, the entity’s foreign bank’s correspondent accounts in U.S. banks. This is all we could ask, and — if applied vigorously — it will be enough to force international businesses to choose between the use of the global financial system and their business ties with North Korea. Yes, North Korea could try to conceal, blur, obfuscate, and obscure which companies are connected to its illicit activities, but Treasury’s answer to this is that its effect will be to spread suspicion to all North Korean entities, even those that claim to be legit. This could be a severe blow to North Korea’s ability to comingle illicit and legitimate finance (the essence of money laundering) and will terrify investors and cause capital flight from the Palace Economy just as the Kim Dynasty is trying to engineer a smooth succession.

For Senator Sam Brownback, it is also a rightful claim to an important legacy when he leaves the Senate to become, almost assuredly, the next Governor of Kansas. In recent months, as North Korea’s behavior changed thinking in the Obama Administration, Brownback effectively lobbied State for tougher economic sanctions, and skillfully parlayed the stayed threat of nomination holds to build friendships with State Department officials with whom he found common ground. In the absence of strong conservative thinkers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brownback filled the void, seized the opportunity to build relationships in the Treasury Department, and encouraged it to press for tougher enforcement. The question now turns to the Administration’s determination to use this tool aggressively, and follow the money to the very ash heap of the Kim Dynasty if necessary.

Who is targeted? A lot of entities that were already on Treasury’s list of specially designated nationals, but also, two key additions: Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, and the notorious Reconnaissance Bureau, the prime suspect in the recent attempt to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop. Also sanctioned was a North Korean state enterprise responsible for making and exporting submarines and torpedoes.

For the moment, senior State Department people like Robert Einhorn seem determined to use financial pressure to force a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior, and talk of re-engaging with North Korea all seems very theoretical and conditional. I don’t think anything short of a coup will actually cause that fundamental change, and the real test will come when State and the Administration come to grips with this. For now, this is all we could have hoped for from this Administration.

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WHO Knew? North Korea’s health care system is nothing to envy.

north-korea-poster-560.jpgSo, aside from stultifying political repression, famine, forced labor, criticism sessions, neighborhood spies, propaganda speakers in every home, prison camps for dissenters, and the occasional public execution, what has Kim Jong Il ever done for us? Ask any Chomsky-parroting career grad student in the East Bay and she’ll say, “universal health care!”

Alas, those neocons at Amnesty International have come to crush their tiny, misshapen hippie souls with this extensive report:

The North Korean government has failed to adequately address the country’s ongoing food shortages since the 1990s. This failure has led to the current critical situation in which the population faces severe health problems associated with malnutrition. Compounding these problems, North Korea’s government has failed to provide adequate resources for its health care system, which as a result is wholly unable to cope with the growing number of illnesses and diseases of a population weakened by hunger.

According to the WHO, North Korea spent less than US $1 per person in 2006.

You do know what this means, don’t you? It means that Margaret Chan isn’t just a tool and an imbecile, she’s a liar. Granted, those options aren’t mutually exclusive. Either way, she should resign from her position:

In fact, North Korea had one of the lowest recorded per capita total expenditure on health in 2006 of any country in the world.105 The state’s paltry expenditure on health, in spite of the urgent need for medical training, access to medicines and public health education, violates North Korea’s obligation to provide for the basic health of its population.

Let me just express my relief that Amnesty can find North Korea on a map, because by the second year of any Republican president’s term, the question does tend to arise. And with that obligatory criticism dispensed with, Amnesty has actually written a good, hard-hitting, report.

The Associated Press picks up the Amnesty report and summarizes it this way:

North Korea’s health care system is in shambles with doctors sometimes performing amputations without anesthesia and working by candlelight in hospitals lacking essential medicine, heat and power, a human rights watchdog said Thursday.

North Korea’s state health care system has been deteriorating for years amid the country’s economic difficulties. Many of its 24 million people reportedly face health problems related to chronic malnutrition, such as tuberculosis and anemia, Amnesty International said in a report on the state of the health care system.

Oh, and North Korea’s universal, free health care is neither, but you knew that:

North Korea says it provides free medical care to all its citizens. But Amnesty said most interviewees said they or a family member had given doctors cigarettes, alcohol or money to receive medical care. Doctors often work without pay, have little or no medicine to dispense and reuse scant medical supplies, the report said. “People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment,” a 20-year-old North Korean defector named Rhee was quoted as saying. “If you don’t have money, you die.”

But on the plus side, positively no death panels!

Many interviewees said they had to walk as long as two hours to get to a hospital for surgery, said Norma Kang Muico, an Amnesty researcher and author of the report. North Koreans are numbed to what was wrong with the health system, because “things keep progressively getting worse, or even staying the same but at that low level,” she told reporters in Seoul on Thursday. Amnesty blamed ….

Wait, wait. Don’t tell me. International sanctions that starve North Korean babies and infringe on its sovereignty! Right?

…. failed or counterproductive government policies and said North Korea should cooperate with aid donors to ensure transparency in the distribution of food assistance and guarantee that medical personnel are paid adequately.

Damn neocons.

Much of Amnesty’s report is about the root cause of the poor health of its people: the lack of food. Amnesty’s original report contains a good history of the regime’s frustration of transparent food aid distribution and monitoring, and this:

North Korea has an obligation to accept international humanitarian assistance when it cannot meet the needs of its own people. But the North Korean government has refused some urgently needed humanitarian assistance on political grounds.32 For example, in May 2008, the US government resumed food aid to North Korea for the first time in three years. But due to strained relations in March 2009, North Korea refused to accept any further food aid from the US and told five US humanitarian aid organizations33 to leave the country by the end of the month. In March 2010, the US government said it would consider resuming food aid to North Korea if the North retracted its refusal of humanitarian assistance.34

One 24 year-old defector from North Hamgyeong relates how he was hitching a ride on a freight train and fell off. Big mistake. His ankle was crushed, and the treatment wasn’t much better than the accident:

“Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain,” said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. “I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.”

Eaten yet? Depending on your answer, you may want to skip past this part:

Na, a 21-year-old man from Onsong, North Hamgyong province, worked with his mother from the age of 8 to 12 years at the local coal mine. Since the early 2000s, he suffered from chronic digestive problems and tried to ameliorate his pain through self-medication by taking aspirin65 at night. He recounted how intestinal or maw worms (Ascaris lumbricoides) “30cm in length” emerged from his mouth. Although Na took anti-worm medication, the worms continued to re-appear due to “poor hygiene”. According to him, the low level of hygiene was due to his work environment, coupled with living in close proximity to farm animals, open sewer and waste that was not properly disposed.66

A 2010 report by South Korea’s Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) looked at medical exams of North Korean settlers who had arrived in South Korea in 2008. It revealed that nearly half of young North Koreans, aged between 13 and 18, were infected with parasites, such as maw worms. The overall rate of infection for that year was 29 per cent.

I’ll give you one last quote, from Barbara Demick of the L.A. Times, who has written plenty about the quality of North Korean health care in her recent book:

“I was screaming so much from the pain, I thought I was going to die. They had tied my hands and legs to prevent me from moving,” said a 56-year-old woman from Musan who had an appendectomy performed without anesthesia. [….]

A 17-year-old girl from Musan, a city near the Chinese border, who defected in February of this year said people often used illegal drugs, particularly “ice,” a highly addictive methamphetamine that is manufactured inside North Korea. “You do drugs if you have a cold, a stomachache, for whatever is wrong,” said the girl, who was interviewed in March by The Times. The Amnesty International report also said North Koreans were using morphine and opium derivatives to medicate themselves for lack of proper pharmaceuticals.

What else emerges from the report is that North Korea’s medical system is a hollow infrastructure — one with a lot of clinics, doctors, and nurses, but no instruments, supplies, equipment, or medicine, and one where the only people who get treated are the privileged or the new rich. That means it’s a system that could be coopted. An underground religious, political, or humanitarian group could help its supporters or beneficiaries inside North Korea get medical care by paying doctors and nurses with money and medicine. The doctors and nurses need the money, and initially, they wouldn’t know and might not care who was paying the bills, at least until they realized they were also incriminated.

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The Decline of North Korea’s Dope Industry

According to the Treasury Department, North Korea is still printing fake dollars, but no major North Korean meth and heroin shipments have been intercepted in recent years, leading it to believe that the regime is out of that business:

“There is insufficient evidence to say with certainty that state-sponsored trafficking by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has stopped entirely in 2009,” the 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the department said. “Nonetheless, the paucity of public reports of drug trafficking with a direct DPRK connection suggest strongly that such high-profile drug trafficking has either ceased, or has been reduced very sharply.”

The annual report said, “No confirmed instances of large-scale drug trafficking involving the DPRK state or its nationals were reported in 2009,” noting, “This is the seventh consecutive year that here were no known instances of large-scale methamphetamine or heroin trafficking to either Japan or Taiwan with direct DPRK state institution involvement.” [….]

The report noted that trafficking of methamphetamine along the North Korea-China border continues. “There are indications that international drug traffickers can purchase methamphetamine in kilogram quantities in some of the major towns on the Chinese side of the DPRK-China border,” it said. [Yonhap]

You can read the full State Department report here. Here’s what it says about Supernote counterfeiting, by the way:

“Counterfeit $100 U.S. notes called supernotes continue to turn up in various countries, including in the United States,” it said. “There are reports, for example, of supernote seizures in San Fransisco and a very large supernote seizure in Busan, South Korea, during 2008 and 2009.” Supernotes are uniquely associated with North Korea, the report said. “But it is not clear if recent seizures are notes which have been circulating for some time, or they are recently-counterfeited new notes.”

Overall, the evidence I’ve seen supports the view that North Korea’s large scale, state-sponsored meth and heroin production and export business has dropped off sharply, although it’s also possible that they’ve just gotten better at not getting caught. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Kim Jong Il has decided to just say no to drugs. North Korean diplomats are still being busted for selling other drugs on a fairly regular basis, though I’m not aware of any major drug busts last year.

Most likely, North Korea’s large-scale dope manufacturing is rusting just like pretty much ever major industry in North Korea. North Korea, which has tried to overcome the law of comparative advantage with silly ideas like ostrich and rabbit farms, is thought to have brought in experts from the Golden Triangle to teach it how to grow poppies. Former prisoners have identified this field in Camp 15, a political prison camp, as one place where opium poppies are grown:


North Korea’s short growing season may have done as much to doom this initiative as anything, including high-profile drug interceptions and the general decline of North Korean industry.

Where North Korea manufactures (or manufactured) illicit (to us) drugs is no longer a very well kept secret. At least some of the facilities used to manufacture the drugs were originally built by the Japanese during the occupation period. Here’s the Nanam Pharmaceutical Factory …


and the Hamheung Pharmaceutical Factory:


A big thank you to Curtis for those last two locations. For much, much more on North Korea’s dope industry, I refer you to this detailed paper by Lieutenant Commander Cindy Hurst.

This doesn’t mean that North Korea isn’t still producing plenty of meth and heroin, although most of the industry seems to have turned pro. As I’ve described here in more detail, the collapse of North Korea’s economy left a number of scientists and chemists with all the knowledge needed to set up their own meth labs and with no other means to survive. Despite North Korea’s poverty, there’s a demand for drugs to stave off hunger and dreariness, and as a substitute for medically appropriate medicines that aren’t widely available. As a result, the city of Hamhung in particular has a severe problem with methamphetamine addiction. The latest from Open News is that students are turning to selling dope (and in some cases, their diplomas) to survive:

North Korean university students have the burden of paying for living expenses and other financial sacrifices requested by the university. In the case of university students in downtown Haesan last year, it has been estimated that the average amount money spent a year is about 18,000-20,000 yuan, which is equivalent to 900,000-1,000,000 won in North Korean currency before the currency reform. Moreover, the students who are in the final semester need to pay a bribe for graduation. The graduation payment is about 6,000-8,000 yuan (about 300,000-400,000 won before currency reform). The source has stated that the reason why the students need to pay bribes even though the North Korean society provides a free education is because bribing is prevalent within the schools. This is why that the North Korean university students have no choice but to be involved in criminal acts such as drug trafficking and selling their diploma.

The source further explained about students who are selling their diploma which they have gained with a great amount of effort. According to him, the trend of selling diploma has become popular among the students who have finished their military service, have left their family in suburban areas, or have a low living standards. The portion of such students is approximately 1-2 per class. Also, it is possible for them to change their pictures and names before putting them on the transaction market by contacting the managerial staffs at school. The universities are indeed supporting the diploma selling by condoning it.

Such diplomas are being sold to the people who are rich and want to gain social success. It is because graduating from university is one of the factors that can contribute to gaining success in the society. Also, the price of the diploma, in the case of a diploma from the School of Education, is worth about 300,000 won (before the currency reform).

The source estimated that it was around the mid-1990s when North Korean students have faced such a difficult situations. Although such situations have declined during the late 1990s, it has restarted since the early 2000 before the recent currency reform. Also, it has dramatically increased ever since the currency reform. Furthermore, the source has added that this trend that is not only confined to Heasan, Yangkang Province but is prevalent in other parts of North Korea. [Open News, Mi-Ok Kim]

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17 March 2009

INTOLERABLE SUFFERING, STARVATION, torture, almost universal suffering, yada yada:

Thai jurist Vitit Muntarbhorn told the world body’s Human Rights Council that the situation in the communist-ruled country was “dire and desperate” with the population living in fear and pressed to inform on each other. “The country is under one-party rule. At the pinnacle there is an oppressive regime, bent on personal survival, under which the ordinary people of the land undergo intolerable and interminable sufferings,” he said.

Diplomats said his comments and an accompanying report, although similar in their conclusions to studies of North Korea from independent rights groups, were among the most critical on one country ever presented to a U.N. forum. Muntarbhorn, formally a special rapporteur for the Council which is not obliged to act on his recommendations, said the North Korean government’s abuse of its citizens should be addressed by the entire global community. [Reuters, Robert Evans]

Interesting to see Reuters report this:

Although North Korea and the military government in Myanmar have been the subject of relatively mild resolutions in the past, the Council — where Islamic countries have a strong voice — has issued five condemnations of Israel. [….]

Collective punishment was used, with whole families persecuted and sent into detention when a member falls foul of the authorities, he said. Public executions were common. Torture was used extensively and in the country’s jails, lack of food and forced labor helped ensure “many prisons are a death trap for the inmates.”

Yes, duly noted. And it’s pretty much foregone that the U.N. won’t do a damn thing about it as long as Ban Ki Moon is in change and China holds a veto. It can’t hurt that most members of the Islamic bloc are North Korean arms clients, frequently in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718. More here.

THE STORY OF MI SUN is one of nine featured in a series of short videos produced by LiNK. LiNK continues to impress me with advances in its artistry and creativity. If you like the good work that LiNK does, consider sending them a few bucks.

THE LATEST GOOD FRIENDS DISPATCH IS OUT, with some perspective for all the grim news about our economy. I’m guessing things aren’t about to get this bad:

Ryongdae Coal Mine, located in the Workers District, new Sungchun, in Sungchun County of South Pyongan Province, has been supplying its partial production to the Pyongyang Thermoelectric Power Plant. However, there has been a recent failure in supply, due to low productivity volume. The production level has dropped to about 27,000 MT a month. This coal mine had produced over 100,000 MT a month and about 1,000,000 MT a year. The workers blame their obsolete equipment, a lack of electricity, and transportation problems, as well as a lack of workers. There are only about 6,000 registered workers at this site; such a seriously depleted work force is due to a decrease in attendance level. A coal miner in his forties, named Choi Hyuk, said, “They do not give us our rations or any other vitamins. This is why attendance level has declined. Poor coal miners and mine diggers have nothing else to do but live as beggars. [Good Friends No. 268]

As always, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, including more on North Korea’s efforts to combat its serious methamphetamine problem.

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North Korea Has a Meth Problem, Part 2

After I wrote here recently about North Korea’s growing meth problem, it occurred to me that I never talked about how, as a prosecutor, I learned how awful meth really is. I spent just shy of two years of my Army time assigned to Ft. Irwin, California, home of the OPFOR. During most of that time, I was the prosecutor, or Trial Counsel. Irwin is a great place to drive a T-72, shoot AK’s, or go out on field exercises to launch mock raids on “Blue Force” units. With typical summer temperatures over at 100 degrees, it is not a good place for strenuous outdoor activity, nor is a good place to be a single guy.

Irwin, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, adjoins the southern boundary of Death Valley. Irwin is unusual for its lack of a camp town. It has no off-post assemblage of bars and used car lots, and your on-post entertainment is limited to a shoppette, a PX, and two bars. After that, there’s just a long, dull, dangerous 37-mile 2-lane road without a single house or building beside it. This ends at I-15 and an armpit of a town called Barstow. One of the major industries of Barstow is meth labs. I got to know the cops there, and they showed me their collection of photos — meths labs in garages, in kitchens, in semi-trailers; meth labs behind false walls; meth labs in attics. San Bernardino County, with its vast expanse of desert and death of economic bounty of any kind, produces tons of the stuff.

Like the rest of the county, Ft. Irwin had a meth problem. You’d see it when units that did piss tests. They’d show clusters of users in the barracks. For a while, meth users would be star performers. You’d be a star performer, too, if you had twice the energy and never slept. It would catch up with you, of course. Absent exceptionally good performance and rehab prospects, we’d separate meth users out on a Chapter 14-12b. The stuff was so addictive and contagious that we just wanted the problem gone, and by the time we could court-martial a user, he’d have hooked up three other people with the stuff. We’d court-martial dealers, of course, along with such special cases as users who stole and wrecked their roommates’ cars while AWOL. I had two of those. In those cases, we could put them in pre-trial confinement and let the judge credit them for time served.

As a prosecutor, I elicited testimony from experts, rehab counselors, and even one long-time user about meth’s effects: paranoia, episodes of dangerous euphoria, and eventually, psychosis. One user testified that he taped black construction paper over his windows so that he could sleep for days on end when he crashed. There are a lot of debates about what about meth is so destructive to the human body, and the debate about what causes “meth mouth” is a good example. But it’s clear that for whatever reason, meth is visibly destructive to the people who use it. Sometimes, you can actually spot a tweak just by his sunken cheeks and eyes and rotten teeth (unless the person simply happens to be British, of course).

Sad to say, it’s the West, the region I call home, where the impact is most visible. Meth is doing to the West, albeit more gradually, what crack did to Washington, DC in the 80’s.

After two years of this, I was ready to cool my eyes with the occasional sight of the female form and culture more exotic than AM/PM cheeseburgers. When a spot opened up in Korea, which wasn’t a popular assignment in the Army, I was ready to try living anywhere there be plenty of spicy grilled flesh and leggy, coquettish nubility. And no meth cases, either. Very few drug cases at all, in fact, unless you count the ones that began with soju bowls (if you do count those, then all of my cases in Korea were drug cases). We had occasional LSD cases, but most of the few drug cases we had were about ecstasy. And compared to meth, unless the recipe or dosage are off, LSD and ecstasy in particular are both pretty mild stuff.

So when GI Korea read my post about meth in North Korea and linked to this, I was gobsmacked. Meth in Korea? During my four years in Korea, I read the MP blotter almost every day and knew something about just about every Army court-martial on the peninsula. And although I allow for having forgotten or missed one or two incidents, I don’t recall one single meth-related arrest or prosecution during my entire four-year tour, which only ended in 2002. Whatever drugs the Koreans had, our soldiers would inevitably get in Hongdae. So how did meth go from being a non-issue in the USFK, and presumably for Koreans, too, to being Korea’s “drug of choice?” That’s definitely a recent trend, and it’s bad news for Korean society, North and South alike.

There are two answers to that question for which there’s some evidentiary support. The first involves smuggling by sea, and I note that Richardson links to a new report of North Koreans getting hard time for smuggling meth into Japan (you have to wonder how prison in Japan stacks up against ordinary life in Wonsan). There’s also that North Korean ship suspected of smuggling meth into Pusan, which has a truly seedy subculture around Texas Street. Once an American ghetto, T Street is now mostly a place where Russian sailors stagger the streets chundering on all else who dare tread there.

The other plausible answer comes from that 2008 State Department narcotics report:

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. Also, there are indications that some foreign nationals from Japan and South Korea might travel to this area to purchase the stimulant drugs available there. [U.S. Dep’t of State]

So I guess not all South Koreans in Dandong are missionaries. Then there’s this documentary about human trafficking across the Chinese-North Korean border. A friend on Capitol Hill has seen parts of it, and tells me that one scene actually shows North Koreans smuggling meth into China. So can China blame its meth problem on North Korea? Not so fast:

Quantities of heroin and methamphetamine produced in North Korea continue to find their way into China’s northeastern provinces that border North Korea. Beijing claims that there are no heroin refineries in China. However, China is a major producer of licit ephedrine and pseudoephedrine which when diverted from licit uses can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. There is a widespread belief among law enforcement agencies, worldwide, that large-scale illicit methamphetamine producers in other countries use Chinese-produced ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and there are numerous examples from criminal investigations to confirm this suspicion. Diverted Chinese precursor chemicals may sustain synthetic drug production in other countries as far away as Mexico, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Although China enacted enhanced precursor chemical control laws in November 2005 and is fully engaged in multilateral and bilateral efforts to stop diversion from its chemical production sector, Chinese efforts have not matched the size of its enormous chemical industry with sufficient resources to effectively ensure against diversion. [U.S. Dep’t of State]

Which is good news for South Korea, I suppose, since they can plausibly blame non-Koreans for at least a part of their meth problem. But make no mistake about this — meth may be Kim Jong Il’s problem today, but it’s going to be all of Korea’s problem tomorrow.

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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. 

nk-opium.jpg nk-drug-addict.jpg nk-meth.jpg
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. 

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We must be smoking what they’re growing

North Korea was dropped from the U.S. list of countries producing illicit drugs, a sign of further relief of tensions between the two countries.

“North Korea is not affecting the United States as much as the requirements on the list,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Christy McCampbell said on Sept. 17 in Washington, according to a transcript of her speech on the State Department Web site.  [Bloomberg]

And that decision is based on what?  On  absolutely nothing but the interests of  Chris Hill’s next book deal, of course.  It’s what  stinks so much about this entire deal.  You wake up one morning and see something like like this without so much as a word of public discussion beforehand, knowing that it couldn’t possibly be based on any verifiable fact, and knowing that hardly anyone else will even notice, much less care.  It’s my addiction to futility that keeps me going.

Indeed, it seems like only yesterday when the North Korean dope freighter Pong Su was caught off the coast of Australia unloading $144 million in high-quality heroin.  Youtube has video of the Australian Navy sinking the ship.  North Korea is still a suspected supplier of drugs to addicts in Japan, South Korea, and presumably anywhere else its retailers  can find customers.  North Korea even grows its own opium, and some of that opium is grown in Camp 15, one of Kim Jong Il’s concentration camps.  Here’s a satellite photo of one of the fields identified by a survivor, courtesy of the U.S. Commission for Human Rights in North Korea.



North Korea is also reported to be a producer of high quality meth (see below).  So did our State Department actually go there and verify that (a) the fields are fallow, or (b) that this was  actually an operation run by rogue gulag inmates?  Not a chance.  Their answer isn’t that North Korea is out of the drug business.  The answer  is  that  it’s somebody else’s problem.  Never mind that drugs are a fungible and generally untraceable commodity.  Some recent articles on North Korea’s illegal drug production:

To say that North Korea is not producing and pushing drugs when all of the evidence we have suggests that it is is quite simply a lie — a dirty, expedient, political lie that only shows Pyongyang  that we will embrace its lies as our own.  It rewards crime and mendacity, and thus invites more of it.  Does this bode well for an honest process of disarmament?  Or, for that matter, our national drug policy?  The  Administration is simply playing politics with the inconvenient fact of North Korea’s dope dealing, the same way it played politics with its money laundering, the same way it played politics with its illegal arms dealing, the same way it wants to play politics with  the list of state sponsors of  terrorism.   Each case demonstrates a new low in disregard for law and truth for the sake of a dubious objective.  There are even signs we’re willing to ignore just the latest exposure of North Korea’s proliferation.  So just how thorough does anyone suppose our inspection and verification regime will be? 

If I had known in 2004 that I was actually voting for a Jimmy Carter foreign policy, I would  not have voted at all. 

See also:  

*   Orchard Update:   Sleep well.  More suspicious ships are headed from North Korea to Syria, but we’re  “tracking” them!   For the last several weeks, in fact:

The U.S. military and intelligence community have been tracking several shipments of material they believe have left North Korea and are destined for Syria or may have already landed there, a Pentagon official confirmed.

This same unnamed official, asked to clarify just what the Israelis bombed last week, said that  “none of the information he had reviewed as part of his job indicated any nuclear material was involved.”  But in my roundup of the Orchard story here, you will see that the intelligence community has largely been frozen out of this story, probably to prevent leaks like this one doing further damage to Chris Hill’s shaky sellout. 

Some of the material is believed to have been high-grade metals that could be used in weapons such as missiles or solid-fuel rocket technology.  But “there is concern with shipments going into the region and with their eventual arrival in Syria,” the official said.  The United States is also looking into the possibility material had been shipped from North Korea to Iran and traveled overland into Syria, he said, adding there were indications a ship had docked in Syria recently.

Several of which have apparently already slipped through and unloaded.  Nor is it clear  whether this missile proliferation story has anything to do with Orchard.

Another U.S. official said he has seen satellite imagery of that attack that shows a hole in the center of a building’s roof with the walls still largely intact.  That would strongly indicate a laser guided bomb was used with a fused warhead that exploded after the bomb entered the building roof. The photo is highly classified and not expected to be publicly released.

Axis, shmaxis.

*   More scary news from the axis, via the Hahvahd Crimson:

Most troubling, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a Paris-based Iranian protest group, alleges that North Korea is sharing nuclear technology with Iran. Kim Jong Il equips rogue states with weapons and nuclear know-how, both of which may potentially fall into terrorists’ hands.

*   Three Words:  No Police Protection.

A request by Iran’s president to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site next week has been turned down by police and blasted by U.S. diplomats as an attempt to turn ground zero into a “photo op.”

That has to be one of the most offensively cynical things I’ve ever heard from the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism.  Here’s a flashback to the 9-11 Commission Report:

In sum, there is strong evidence that Iran facilitated the transit of al Qaeda members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11, and that some of these were future 9/11 hijackers. There also is circumstantial evidence that senior Hezbollah operatives were closely tracking the travel of some of these future muscle hijackers into Iran in November 2000.

I’d read that quote aloud in every police and firefighters’ union  hall in Manhattan, pass out mapquests of Ahmedinejad’s itinerary, and watch the fun ensue.  On the grander scale, that seems a  smaller breach of decorum  than letting a pack of whooping loonies take over somebody’s embassy and hold its staff hostage for more than a year.  Not only would  a serious public beating  be a domestic humiliation for Ahmedinejad,  we probably underestimate the value of the impact it would have on Middle Eastern audiences.  Our long-term goals  might be better served by offering more funds, arms, and training to the Iranian guerrillas Michael Totten interviews here

*   Does Air Koryo reuse its sandwich bags and plastic cups?   I have no way of knowing, and I reckon the reporter who wrote this story has no way of knowing, either.  There’s seldom more than a grain of interesting information in a journalist’s traverse of the standard Pyongyang circuit of approved monuments and sites.  Here is that grain:

“Delete the picture!” guide Kim Hyon-choi scolded one man among a small group of foreign journalists. “You mustn’t take pictures of the bad side of our country, ugly things. “¦ We will confiscate them.

On subsequent days, however, the rules changed. No photos of soldiers. No photos of the rickety electric trams in the capital. No photos from the moving tourist bus.  The tour guides seemed more afraid of one another than they were of the foreigners, each one whispering in private that he or she wanted to offer more freedom but feared being ratted out by the others.

That’s a first.  Although it’s tempting to make too much of the remark of one man, I’ve never heard of any of these loyalist selectees privately admitting fear or disagreement.     

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True, But Would It Sell Papers?

At the Marmot’s Hole, R. Elgin notes that the Korean press is trying to  make foreigners the scapegoats for  South Korea’s drug problems.  I agree with R. Elgin.  The article notes a “huge increase” in drug smuggling into Korea, and then proceeds  to  indirectly blame Americans, Canadians, and Chinese for it. 

Prosecutors believe the rising number of American drug offenders correlates to a rising number of English teachers coming to Korea, prompted by the recent trend for English education.

The total of 116 foreign drug offenders caught in Korea last year is a 28.4 percent decline from the year before. There were 88 foreign drug offenders caught in 2002, 86 in 2003, 203 in 2004, and 162 in 2005.  [….]

Prosecutors said that Korea, which was once considered drug-free, is increasingly being used as a conduit by criminal groups for international drug trafficking.   

The article  offers no data about  the volume or substances found in the possession of persons of these nationalities.  For all we know, the drug seizures from the foreign teachers  could be personal use amounts.   

I would concede, on one hand, that there is generally more social acceptance for drug use among Americans, Canadians, and Europeans than among South Koreans overall.  I think this is regrettable, but it does not mean that drug use in Korea is a “foreign” problem.  The article’s discussion about Korea as a trans-shipment location could even suggest that South Korea is a net exporter of illegal drugs, although I doubt that this is the case.  Let me suggest an alternative theory  that may have less appeal on the Korean street:

South Korean customs officers raided a warehouse in the southeastern port of Busan last week and found 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of methamphetamine smuggled through North Korea, the biggest haul in South Korean history.  [Bloomberg, June 2003]

On one hand, I see no stats for North Koreans being arrested.  On the other hand, as long as Roh Moo Hyun runs South Korea, a North Korean diplomat could abduct schoolgirls off the streets of Seoul  with a meathook and never get arrested.  As Michael Breen recently pointed out, the South Koreans keep welcoming the same North Korean drug ship back to their ports.  There’s little question that North Korea faces little risk in selling dope in South Korea.  How many English teachers can say that?

This theory — that North Korea is  more likely to be  responsible for this “huge increase” than a few hippie English teachers —  has the advantage of actual evidentiary support.  For the Korean  media, however,  it has an overriding disadvantage:  zero xenophobia value.  Statistically, I wonder how the volume of the  English teachers’ pot and ecstasy compares to the volume of crank the North Koreans are moving South.  I can say that of the three substances, meth is easily the most addictive and dangerous. 

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