ILLEGAL DRUG TRADE IN NORTH KOREA
At present there is insufficient information to determine the current level of involvement of government officials in the production or trafficking of illicit drugs, but for years, from the 1970s into the 2000s, citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK), many of them diplomatic employees of the government, were apprehended abroad while trafficking in narcotics; police investigations in Taiwan and Japan in recent years have linked North Korea to large illicit shipments of heroin and methamphetamine. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
In 2015 the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report stated methamphetamines, or crystal meth, continue to dominate North Korea's illicit drug market. The report stated it is not clear whether the North Korean government is directly involved in drug production, but North Korean officials have in the past been apprehended for drug sales. [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, December 1, 2016]
For years, from the 1970s into the 2000s, citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK), many of them diplomatic employees of the government, were apprehended abroad while trafficking in narcotics, including two in Turkey in December 2004; police investigations in Taiwan and Japan in recent years have linked North Korea to large illicit shipments of heroin and methamphetamine, including an attempt by the North Korean merchant ship Pong Su to deliver 150 kilograms of heroin to Australia in April 2003. The Japanese news service Kyodo reported that in October 2002, a South Korean resident arrested on a North Korean ship told police that he received amphetamines in exchange for stolen cars bound for North Korea.
There have been more than 50 arrests or drug seizures in 20 countries involving North Koreans. North Korean diplomats have been arrested in more than a dozen countries with a variety of illegal drugs, including opium, heroin, cocaine, hashish, amphetamines and other drugs. In 1998,North Korean diplomats were arrested by customs agents in Cairo, carry 506,000 tablets of Rohynpol, a sedative known as the “date-rape drug.” It was the largest seizure of Rohypnol ever. The same year North Korean diplomats in Russia were arrested for smuggling 77 pounds or US$4 million worth of cocaine. In December 2004, North Korean diplomats were expelled from Australia for dealing ecstacy and other drugs. In March 2013, a report alleged an unknown number of North Korean diplomats were given about 44 pounds of illegal drugs to sell on trips abroad.
History of North Korean Illegal Drug Production and Smuggling
In the 1970s, North Korea’s cash-poor government began sponsoring local opium cultivation and the production of opiates. Since the 1970s, many North Korean diplomats have been arrested abroad for drug smuggling. In 1976, North Korean diplomats were kicked out of four Scandinavian country on charges of selling narcotics, cigarettes and alcohol. The same year another North Korean diplomat in Egypt was arrested with 400 kilograms of hashish. In the 1980s, North Korea became more involved in production.
North Korea activities increased dramatically in the 1990s after funds from the Soviet Union were cut off. According to one defector Kim Il Sung ordered the cultivate of opium in 1991. Kim Jong Il ordered an increase in production, ordering a number of collective farms in the mountainous regions of North Korea, It turned first to opium production but after floods in 1995 wiped out much of the opium crop it became more involved in amphetamines.
In the 1990s, North Korea began manufacturing methamphetamine and heroin for export. The regime earned a considerable of hard currency while North Korea became a nation of drug users. According to The Telegraph: “North Korea has been producing methamphetamine to increase its funds since the 1970s. It was was initially sold as a medicine, but quickly became a hugely popular drug. It is produced in state-run facilities by underpaid chemists and sold both domestically and internationally. As the production and sale of opium declined in the early 2000s, methamphetamine became even more widespread.” [Source: James Rothwell, The Telegraph, August 10. 2016]
North Korean Government and Illegal Drugs
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Through the 1990s, the North Korean government ran the production of opium, meth and other drugs for Office 39, a unit raising hard currency for late leader Kim Jong Il, according to narcotics investigators. But the North Korean government has largely gone out of the drug business, according to the U.S. State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014]
During the 2000s, the entire North Korean drug trafficking operation was believed to be overseen by Chang Sung Taek, the brother in law of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Chang ran his operation out of an office called Workers Party Room 39. Some of the money earned from dugs is believed to have funded Kim Jong Il’s indulges; some may also go to support North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
When the North Korean government controlled the business, drugs were strictly for export. Privatization made the drugs more widely available within North Korea. North Korea was long seen as a supplier of illegal drugs to China. North Korea began experienced a surge of domestic methamphetamines use after China started cracking down on cross-border smuggling.
Illegal Drugs and Money for the North Korean Regime
North Korea is believed to have earned at least US$100 million a year from drug sales. Some believed it earned much than that. One defector told Yomiuri Shimbum that North Korea earned 60 percent of all of its foreign currency, or about US$500 million, from drug sales. Most of the transaction are done in cash, usually American dollars, Japanese ten and Chinese yuan. The defector also said, “Kim Il Sun told his people to grow opium because he needed cash.”
In the 1990s, North Korea is believed to have produced one ton a month each of heroin and methamphetamine. On defector told the Los Angeles Times, “North Korea is the ideal place to grow and export drugs because nobody will question authority or even question whether it is legal.”
On how the drugs were paid for, the defector said: “On a strictly cash basis. Once in a awhile, a wire can be used, but they prefer cash payment, U.S. dollars, that;s fine. If they get Japanese yen,that’s fine. If they get Chinese yuan, that’s fine. They set up a time and place by international phone calls to go (meet) on the high seas. Then they get together at the meeting and hand over the drugs and money
Opium Production by North Korea
As of 1999, North Korea was believed to producing between 30 and 44 tons of opium annually by growing poppies on 10,000 to 17,000 acres of land. This is enough to make 3½ to 4 tons of heroin. It these figures were accurate then North Korea would have been the world third largest grower of opium after Afghanistan and Myanmar and ahead of Columbia, the largest supplier of heroin to the United States.
North Korea began growing opium poppies in the 1980s reportedly under the orders of Kim Il Sung. According to one defector, the Kim Jong Il regime directly oversaw opium farms, mostly around the town of Yonsa, in the mountainous North Hangyong province. One defector who helped harvest poppies told the Los Angeles Times, “The boys used to work for 40 minutes, the girls for only 30 minutes. You get dizzy if you stayed to long. We didn’t really know what it was and we didn’t ask.”
In some places farmers were encouraged to grow opium instead of food during the 1990s famine. One defector told the Los Angeles Times, “There were some complaints that during the famine we should be growing grain, not poppies, but the instructions from the central government was that if we grow poppies we can sell them for 10 times as much to buy grain.”.
Heroin Production by North Korea
Opium grown in North Korea was processed into heroin and other drugs at a pharmaceutical plant in the Nanam area near the city of Chongjin, where production was overseen by experts from Thailand. Some of the opium was processed and exported to foreign countries under the label "Paekdoraji," (meaning the "roots of white bellflowers").
One defector told U.S. News and World Report that he delivered vans fulls of opium to pharmaceutical plants where it was processed into heroin, which was delivered to ports for export aboard on Japanese ships. The defector said his bosses “talked about opium being gold.”
The North Koreans preferred producing heroin over other drugs because there was more money in it. The North Korea regime insisted that opium production was strictly for medicinal purposes and the drugs were being stockpiled in case of a war. It said allegations o drug smuggling were a South Korea smear campaign.
Heroin Trafficking by North Korea
North Korea workers reportedly smuggled North-Korean-produced opium and heroin into Russia to sell to the Russian mafia. There have also been reports of North Koreans working at logging camps in Siberia, dissolving opium and morphine into “medicines” that they sell from roadside stands. In 1997, Russian police caught a North Korean with US$50,000 worth of opium. Two other North Koreans were arrested for trying to sell US$400,000 worth of drugs to Russian police posing as gangsters.
In 2003, a North Korean freighter was seized off Australia. It was carrying 50 kilograms or US$115 million worth of heroin that its crew attempted to drop off ona beach. The ship was chased for four days before it was boarded by Australian Special Forces dropped by ropes from helicopters. The North Korean captain and his 28-member crew were arrested put on trial in Australia. The heroin seized had a Burma-produced Double Dragon label. Defectors say that North Korea often it sells it heroin with this label.
The ship for some reason made a heroin delivery off the town of Lorne in Victoria state near Melbourne at a place known for its treacherous waves. Two men in a rubber speedboat made for the shore at night with 50 kilograms of heroin. The sea was rough that night and eight-foot waves swamped the boat. One man was able to deliver the heroin. The other was swept off the boat and drowned. The following day Australia police arrested three men with the heroin and found the surviving North Korean hiding behind some bushes. After that Australian authorities began chasing the ship.
The ship, the Pong Su, was used by the Australian Air Force for target practice and was destroyed after being bombed by an Australian F-111 fighter jet in 2006. The Australian government said the bombing was a warning to North Korea to halt its involvement in drug smuggling. "It is appropriate that we publicly demonstrate our outrage at what has happened by sinking this ship," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said. The Pong Su's cargo of heroin, would have provided four million hits of the drug on Australian streets, Downer said. [Source: BBC, March 23, 2006] . The BBC reported: “The 3,500-tonne Pong Su was used to smuggle in more than 125 kilograms of heroin. Four crew members who were involved in transporting the heroin from ship to shore pleaded guilty to drug charges. Two were sentenced to 22 and 23 years in prison. The other two received lighter sentences. An Australian jury cleared the captain of the Pong Su and three officers of involvement in an international drug ring. Although North Korea has denied any link to the smuggling operation, Mr Downer said it was hard to imagine a shipping company acting on its own in Pyongyang's Stalinist-style economy. "I mean this isn't, after all, a private sector economy where private companies are doing things on their own accord," Mr Downer said.
North Korean Methamphetamine Production
North Korea reportedly runs and formerly ran industrial scale methamphetamine production centers. The drug is very popular in East Asia. Authorities have traced orders for 50 tons of ephedrine — the key ingredient for amphetamines — to North Korean front companies. Analyst concluded that either a lot of North Koreans were suffering from colds (ephedrine is also used in cold remedies) or they were producing a lot of methamphetamine. Fifty tons of ephedrine is enough to make 40 tons or US$8 billion worth of methamphetamines.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Russia and Hong Kong have been the primary markets for North Korean stimulants. The drugs can reportedly be sold in China for US$12,000 a kilogram and elsewhere for US$20,000 a kilogram. The amount of methamphetamine entering Japan from North Korea increased 21-fold between 1998 and 2002.
According to The Telegraph: “North Korea has been producing methamphetamine to increase its funds since the 1970s. It was was initially sold as a medicine, but quickly became a hugely popular drug. It is produced in state-run facilities by underpaid chemists and sold both domestically and internationally. As the production and sale of opium declined in the early 2000s, methamphetamine became even more widespread.” [Source: James Rothwell, The Telegraph, August 10. 2016]
In 2007, Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA) said it believed that North Korea ran at least three secret factories producing illicit stimulant drugs. Two of the three factories were located in areas where pharmaceutical factories were situated when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial control. According to Japanese authorities, the drugs they seized were of three types. Based on chemical analyses, the police say the drgs were produced at different locations based on differences in impurities and crystalline elements. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 19, 2007]
According to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun: “The police strongly believe buildings in Wonsan in North Korea’s east and Chongjin in the northeast are drug factories. Both places are where the Japanese pharmaceutical factories were located before World War II. Also, it has been confirmed that stimulant drugs were sent from a port at Nampo near Pyongyang and there is a building suspected to be a drug factory near the port. In addition, the NPA has obtained information there is another factory along the Yalu River near the border with China.”
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Methamphetamine, known as orum, or "ice," is a rare commodity manufactured and sold in North Korea, where most factories sit idle, the equipment rusted or looted. The North Korean government once produced the drug, and others that are illicit in the West. Resourceful entrepreneurs have since set up their own small facilities, and evidence suggests that they are distributing the drug beyond the nation's borders. "Meth is a product you can make in bathtubs or trailers," Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a University of Missouri professor said. "You have a wide range of people involved in production and trafficking." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014]
North Korean Methamphetamine Smuggling
Since the 1970s, many North Korean diplomats have been arrested abroad for drug smuggling. In the 1990s, the North’s cash-poor government began manufacturing meth for export, about two decades after it began sponsoring local opium cultivation and the production of opiates, according to a 2014 study by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a University of Missouri political scientist. Finished meth was typically sent across the northern border into China, or handed off at sea to criminal organizations like Chinese triads or the Japanese yakuza.
Barbara Demick wrote in theLos Angeles Times: “Through the 1990s, the North Korean government ran the production of opium, meth and other drugs for Office 39, a unit raising hard currency for late leader Kim Jong Il, according to narcotics investigators. But the North Korean government has largely gone out of the drug business, according to the U.S. State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014]
“When the North Korean government controlled the business, the drugs were strictly for export. Privatization made the drugs more widely available within North Korea.. Meth was ideal for budding North Korean entrepreneurs because it could be cooked in small "kitchen laboratories," with chemical precursors readily available across the border in China, which has laxer control than many other countries. The finished product finds its way back across the border, carried by smugglers who also traffic in cellphones, DVDs and cash.”
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: Related “to the smuggling of North Korea’s stimulant drugs, the NPA reexamined seven cases uncovered from 1997 to May 2006, year, in which about 1,500 kilograms of stimulant drugs were seized. 1) Spy boats of North Korea’s secret agency have been used as a means of transportation. 2) North Koreans arrested for smuggling made confessions hinting they had been acting under the instructions of the North Korean government. 3) Further, the authorities analyzed confessions of suspects arrested for smuggling stimulant drugs, data from intelligence satellites and the moves of covert operations boats and cargo vessels that transported the drugs. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 19, 2007]
North Korea, Japan and Amphetamines Trafficking
The source of much of the illegal methamphetamines sold in Japan in the late 1990s and early 2000s is believed to have been North Korea. It widely believed that Pyongyang supplied the yakuza and Japanese Korean gangs that distributes the drugs in Japan. The amount of amphetamines entering Japan from North Korea increased 21-fold between 1998 and 2002. In 1998 and 1999 alone, Japanese authorities seized 500 kilograms of North Korean amphetamines, a third of all stimulant seizures in that period.
In the late 1990s, police in Japan found 70 kilograms of illegal methamphetamines, with a street value of US$100 million, in jars of honey shipped to Japan on a North Korean freighter. Police arrested the captain of the ship and Korean residents who tried to pick up the drugs in Japan. Authorities were checked the honey because the were wondering why a country in the midst of a famine was exporting food. On another occasion 99 kilograms of North Korean amphetamines hidden in a cargo of shellfish on a Chinese freighter. The vessel had made a stop in North Korea before arriving in Japan.
A total of 35 percent of the stimulants seized between 1998 and 2002 (1,232 kilograms) came from North Korea, compared to 51 percent from China. Between 1998 and 2002, there were five known cases of amphetamines being smuggled into Japan from North Korea by North Korea vessels, making drop offs at sea to Japanese, or on Chinese fishing boats. Between 150 kilograms and 550 kilograms was involved in each drop.
In August 1998, a Japanese smuggling group rendezvoused with a North Korean vessel in international waters in the East China Sea and picked up 300 kilograms of stimulants. The Japanese smugglers were caught with drugs off Kochi prefecture. The same year, police in Japan retrieved up 200 kilograms of methamphetamines floating in the ocean that were intended be picked up later by Japanese smugglers. Chemical analysis linked the drugs to North Korea.
A major North Korean smuggling ring was discovered and disrupted in May 2006. Four Japanese were found guilty of smuggling amphetamines into Japan from North Korea---including a 68-year-old gangster connected to the Matsuba-kai yakuza gang---were given prison sentences of between 11 and 20 years.
The price of stimulant drugs skyrocketed after the smuggling operation from North Korea was shut down. After that the quality of the drugs dropped markedly and large amounts of high-quality drugs began coming in from China. In the early 2000s the price of a kilogram of high-quality meth was around ¥6 million or ¥7 million. By 2007 it was around ¥15 million.
North Korean Meth Reaches the United States and China
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In December 2013, “five alleged drug smugglers — Chinese, British and Thai men among them — appeared in federal court in New York, extradited from Thailand in a plot to smuggle 220 pounds of crystal meth to the United States. They said that their product originated in North Korea... Greitens has tracked 16 drug busts from 2008 to the present in China involving crystal meth from North Korea in quantities of up to 22 pounds. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2014]
““The case in a New York court involved a gang reportedly working out of Thailand and the Philippines. The drugs never reached the United States, but samples provided to undercover agents proved to be 99 percent pure, according to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in New York. Those arrested said they were the only remaining providers from North Korea. Because of the purity of the meth seized by the DEA, experts believe it might have been stockpiled and left over from the days when the North Korean government ran the drug manufacturing. The drugs produced by private entrepreneurs are of lower quality, according to Greitens.
“Sensitive about their traditional political ties with the communist country, the Chinese don't often complain publicly about North Korean drugs and Chinese news reports do not mention the neighboring nation. "The stories would often say they arrested somebody named Kim from the border of a foreign country, so you could figure it out," Greitens said.
“In Yanji, a Chinese border city of 400,000, the number of drug users increased nearly 47 times from 1995 to 2005, according to a paper published in 2010 by Cui Junyong, a professor at the Yanbian University School of Law in China. "Smuggling of North Korean drugs into China hurts the health of the province and the region and endangers the stability of the region," Cui wrote. "The NK government already burned all the labs. Only our labs are not closed," a Chinese citizen who was one of the gang reportedly boasted to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021