Just call him North Korea’s Walter White: a struggling professor who turned to making methamphetamine, or crystal meth, to supplement his modest income – and who is likely to have found ready conspirators in gangs from across the border in China.
Defectors and North Koreans working illicitly abroad say a large-scale drug trade has flooded north-east China with cheap narcotics, to the anger of Beijing.
North Korea describes such accusations as political smears: “The illegal use, trafficking and production of drugs which reduce human beings into mental cripples do not exist in the DPRK,” the state news agency, KCNA, said last year.
But experts argue that the state itself has actively produced and trafficked illegal drugs for decades, and has since either tolerated or failed to control manufacturers such as the professor, who was mentioned in a report by North Korea expert Andrei Lankov (paywall) this year.
The academic, from a pharmaceutical college, was arrested for running a large methamphetamine laboratory, according to a North Korean interior ministry document cited by South Korean media.
The director of China’s narcotics control bureau warned last week that the country was facing “a grim task in curbing synthetic drugs”, particularly methamphetamines.
China has recently arrested 24,000 people suspected of drug offences and investigated more than 100,000 users in a 50-day crackdown. Another senior official blamed south-east Asian suppliers. In fact, China has repeatedly addressed drug problems in its north-east too, but rarely spells out why there is so much methamphetamine in the region, or where it comes from, thanks to the sensitivity of relations with North Korea.
South Korea news site Dong-a Ilbo claimed that Chinese police had seized $60m worth of North Korean-produced drugs in 2010.
China’s attempts to tackle the problem have included speedboat anti-drug patrols along the Yalu river border, but it has been unable to halt the flow: last year, police in Linjiang, Jilin, seized 4.5lb of methamphetamines with an estimated street value of 2m yuan (about £200,000), while colleagues in Liaoning province seized 23.3kg in a “cross-border” smuggling case.
In a 2010 essay, Cui Junyong, a law professor at Yanbian University, noted: “In the past three to five years, a very large percentage of drugs consumed in [this prefecture] were not from domestic sources but from our neighboring country – the DPRK. The cross-border drug smuggling cases of North Korean citizen are evidently on the rise …
“The number of people using drugs and drug addicts has been rapidly increasing, and we can’t say that the surges have nothing to do with the criminals who illegally smuggle drugs across the border.”
From poppy crops to meth labs
The story of the North Korean drug trade appears to have begun around 1976, when one of its diplomats was expelled from Denmark after being caught with 147kg of hashish. Others were asked to leave Malaysia and Egypt for similar reasons that year and Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an expert on China and North Korea, has documented 77 cases of North Korean-linked trafficking between then and 2004. Pyongyang said it had punished officials for their individual misbehaviour. But defectors and North Koreans working abroad have said that farmers were ordered to plant poppy crops, and that official factories produced high-quality drugs.
“Crystal meth was viewed as a catch-all drug: you didn’t have to eat so much, because it deadens hunger pains; and it was good for keeping soldiers alert while on duty. Then they realized this could be shipped off and used to make money,” said Justin Hastings, of the University of Sydney.
But in the middle of the last decade, government production halted or at least dramatically reduced, scholars agree.
“The model has shifted from centralized, state-sponsored production to decentralized production that is either private or a hybrid arrangement in which private entrepreneurs run the activity with toleration or support from officials, who then benefit by receiving a cut of the profits, probably in the form of licenses, bribes, loyalty offerings to the regime,” said Greitens, of the University of Missouri.
“The average seizure or shipment is much smaller, the packaging is more diverse, and the quality is more variable, suggesting that there is more small-scale production.”
Lankov said that police controls in effect collapsed at the same time that the economy underwent de facto privatization. “Some technicians and scientists who used to work in two factories where crystal meth had been produced officially decided to ‘break bad’, using their skills and maybe some stuff they stole from government factories,” he said.
China has been unable to halt the flow
Why the government stepped back is unclear, but Hastings argued that it had still benefited from a share of the proceeds flowing back to it, without attracting such opprobrium or having to worry about production and drug busts.
When the Washington Post reported claims, greeted skeptically by analysts, that diplomats were being used as dealers, KCNA attacked the newspaper as a “shock brigade” of US hostility, adding: “It is illogical for the US, a country plagued with serious social problems like drug misuses, smuggling and illegal production, to talk about the non-existent ‘drug trafficking’ in the DPRK.”
But reports of crackdowns and anti-drug propaganda suggest the North has grown concerned about internal consumption. The country saw a dramatic surge in drug abuse as the trade went private, according to a report by Lankov and Seok-hyang Kim.
Their interviews with defectors suggested it was originally a habit for the privileged and affluent, people such as state officials or black-market operators, who said it improved their ability to work long hours. It had a cachet: at some restaurants, you could ask for methamphetamine instead of a digestif, informants said.
“People meet to savour drugs pretty much like they would meet to drink liquor in the past,” one added.
Gradually, use spread through society and by 2010, it had become established among high school and college students. A construction worker suggested up to 70% of colleagues in their 20s used it.
Most of the interviewees came from one border province, and it is unclear how widespread use is: North Koreans interviewed by the Guardian in China this year said methamphetamine was too expensive to be taken regularly or used to sate hunger pangs, though some used it as medicine because it was cheaper than imported drugs.
There have been a handful of big busts internationally. Last year, the US extradited five men from Thailand, accusing them of seeking to traffic 100kg of North Korean-produced methamphetamine to New York. But overall, said Greitens, “The centre of gravity of the North Korean drug trade has shifted.
“Prior to 1994, it was global, in places where North Korea had diplomatic or trade relations. From 1994-2005, it was largely regional, defined by maritime smuggling routes and the reach of the organized criminal groups with whom North Korea partnered. Since 2005 or so, the trade has been centered on the Korean peninsula and the areas that directly border it.”
Hastings, who has written on drug trafficking networks, noted that the turn to China might be a practical one, since the state was no longer coordinating transport. North Koreans are largely responsible for taking drugs across the border, with Chinese dealers selling them on inside China or to South Korean and occasionally Japanese clients. The North Koreans receive a smaller share of the profits, but do not have to deal with distribution.
Meanwhile, the Chinese gangs are willing to supply ingredients because it is hard to produce the drugs domestically, said Lankov. “They have a much better police force, significantly less corrupt and more efficient. Laboratories are very smelly. In North Korea, a bribe ensures the local policeman looks the other way, and there are abundant large, unused, industrial facilities. They can basically produce drugs with a measure of impunity,” he said.
Additionally, he said, while North Korea was known for punishing offenders harshly, it seemed more lenient towards drug producers and dealers than China.
How much more China can do to curb the trade is unclear, though it has reportedly pressed the North for action. While it is the country’s only major ally, relations have long been fraught with suspicion and are at a particularly unhappy point at the moment. The North is highly reliant on Chinese oil and food – but the last thing Beijing wants is the regime’s collapse, and drugs are likely to rank far lower on its list of concerns than Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and general stability.
The Walter Whites of the North may be safe for now.