By: Roshni Rangwani
As tariffs continue to tighten their chokehold on the North Korean economy, its leaders may be resorting to an old standby for relief: the international drug trade.
The dominant Western narrative of the DPRK has been well worn: as the rest of the world strove into the 21st century, the story goes that this “pariah state” sequestered itself as the last stronghold of communism at the end of the Cold War. Yet, North Koreans may be more integrated into the global economy than this myth suggests. Their sensational experiences of methamphetamine manufacturing, for instance, shed unique light on the state’s smoke-and-mirrors inner workings and foreign policy, both in the past and the future.
Known by a variety of names, including bingdu (“ice”), shabu, and yaba yaba, crystal meth is a powerful stimulant that ranks amongst the most popular illicit drugs in the world. Drawing inspiration from kamikaze soldiers that took the drug during the Japanese occupation of Korea in World War II, the DPRK first stockpiled it in the 1970s for use in case of war. After the USSR collapsed, North Korea found itself facing tough sanctions with empty coffers, snowballing into 1994’s “Arduous March”– a period of mass famine and acute economic crisis lasting the rest of the decade. The cash-poor government, direly needing foreign reserves to buy grain, began a program of state-sponsored meth manufacture for export. Finished meth was typically sent north into China, or exchanged at sea with criminal organisations like the south Chinese triads or Japanese yakuza. North Korean diplomats were implicated in, and even arrested for, over 45 incidents of drug smuggling in upwards of 20 countries in the 1990s.
A 2010 paper from the US military’s Strategic Studies Institute summed up the situation as one of “criminal sovereignty”: the DPRK government was using its supreme authority within its borders to carry out activities that defied international law. The ease of production afforded by criminal sovereignty meant that North Korean meth had a 98% purity (based on seized samples), which easily outclassed dominant producers like Myanmar. This higher purity percentage was a huge advantage to customers in drug markets, where unenforceability and the inability to know the quality of drugs before purchase had previously created a tempting moral hazard for sellers. As demand for the DPRK’s products soared on international black markets, it successfully carved out a comparative advantage for itself within the short span of a decade.
Around the mid-2000s, policy shifted in Pyongyang once more. “The government decided to close many of the larger, export-oriented, regime-supported manufacturing facilities,” said Sheena Greitens, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. She reflected that this may have been due to slashed revenues during the high-profile crackdown on drugs in China that peaked at the time. A sudden surplus formed of people without government salaries and ration-benefits, but with the skills to manufacture meth—triggering explosive growth in the private drug black market in the country (it is worth noting that crystal meth needs little more than a bathtub to be produced).
A decade on, even the few verifiable reports to reach the outside world are startling. Amid a chronic lack of medical supplies, citizens often take meth as an alternative, and inevitably develop dependence over time. The drug’s ability to suppress hunger is considered useful both for the masses (for whom food is scarce) and the wives of party elites (for whom it is a favoured diet pill). It is even a popular Lunar Festival gift for citizens as young as middle-schoolers, being highly prized as well as easily available. Although the North Korean government technically bans meth, its proliferation is an open secret. Producers bribe officials to look the other way, who in turn pass the money further up the “food chain,” effectively creating an off-the-books revenue stream that grows more lucrative for the government as substance abuse increases.
However, Loretta Napoleoni, author of North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate, believes the days of private crystal meth production in the DPRK may be numbered. As recent economic sanctions begin to pinch, she asserts that the state will resort to the multi-billion dollar narcotics trade once more, backed by fresh tools it lacked in the 1990s such as state-of-the-art hackers trained in cryptocurrency money laundering. China’s largesse (the country is still responsible for 90% of the DPRK’s exports) even in the face of burgeoning meth trade along its border supports her assertion. The significant correlation between countries offering visa-free travel to DPRK citizens, countries identified as sites of illicit activity by the DPRK in violation of UN Resolutions, and a cluster of island countries known for shell company registration, may also be a telling red flag for future expansion routes.
While North Korean nuclear policy gets all the media attention, its lesser known narcotics epidemic is clearly a space to watch out for as well.
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