Comments Off on Ice Age: Methamphetamine Drugs in North Korea

In Kim Il Sung times, the DPRK was well-known for producing narcotics for export: It brought a significant amount of profit into the budget of the “people’s Korea.” One of the centers of drug production was the Hungnam pharmaceutical factory. The town of Hungnam was one of the centers of Korean science and technology, even from the colonial era. There is even an urban legend that the Japanese tried to manufacture an atomic bomb there but, of course, these rumors are completely groundless.DPRK was well-known

As one of the former residents of North Korea told me, sometime in the early 2000s the factory became undersupplied, while the workers were still require to fulfill the plan – and if they failed to do so, their salary was to be cut. Therefore the workers had to look for alternate sources of income. And within a few years, around 2004-2005 or so, Pyongyang decided to stop exporting the narcotics.

It was then that some of the workers decided to sell the drug production technology and thus it was leaked to the public. The highest levels of corruption, the domination of farmers’ markets at the low levels of the economy, the loosening of the grip of the regime – all these realities of the 21st century’s DPRK caused methamphetamine to start spreading like a plague. Furthermore, many North Koreans were quite ignorant about the dangers of narcotics’ consumption: drugs were rarely mentioned in North Korean media, and, of course, only when they were talking about “rotten capitalist countries.” Moreover, they don’t usually call meth by its official name. The most popular slang term is “ice,” since that’s what the white crystals of methamphetamine resemble. Many North Koreans, especially at first, did not understand that “ice” and “drugs” were the same thing and therefore a myth was born: “ice,” they say, is merely a stimulant. Those who understood that the consumption of “ice” damages one’s health created a new myth: take it once a year, they say, and it will be OK.

The Chinese origins of the drug materials were responsible for another nickname for methamphetamine – pingdu

The narcotics market was growing – and the demand for raw materials for the production of drugs was growing with it. Dealers started to use contraband channels to illegally import ephedrine from China, which was converted to methamphetamine inside North Korea. The conversion process caused the side effect – a strong smell – so dealers tried to put their facilities underground, literally, to hide from unwanted eyes and noses. The Chinese origins of the drug materials were responsible for another nickname for methamphetamine – pingdu. This comes from the Chinese term bingdu, meaning “ice poison” or “ice narcotic.” (This also means that the Chinese people understand what they are dealing with much better than the North Koreans do.)


As time went on, drug dealers started to think about new markets, and they started to send the methamphetamines back to China, specifically to the provinces of Jilin and Liaoning bordering North Korea. Ironically, here North Korea acted like a more developed economy: They imported raw materials and exported the finished product. Often North Korean dealers were assisted by Chinese Koreans, whose knowledge of both Chinese and Korean proved very useful. According to the Department of All-China People’s War against Narcotics (yes, that’s how it’s officially called), from 2005 to 2007 the amount of confiscated methamphetamines at the North Korean border increased four times over. High-ranking Chinese officials, like Liu Yuejin, the deputy director of the National Narcotic Department, described the situation with drugs in northeastern China as a “heavy calamity” and said that the drugs continue to spread there. Furthermore, Chinese authorities report that a number of addicts of the city of Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture from 1995 to 2010 increased from only 44 to 2,090, a 47.5-fold increase.

While Chinese authorities did realize that something should be done about the problem, they were still unwilling to spoil their relationship with Pyongyang. So when another North Korean drug dealer was caught at the border, state media usually reported that he was “from another country,” although no one had any illusions as to what country they were talking about. Police actions, were, of course, proceeding as they should. A rehabilitation center for drug addicts opened in Yanbian. In 2012, Yanbian authorities organized an event called “Mothers against drugs” which was – rather diplomatically – scheduled to take place on June 26, the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. At the same day, local press reported the execution of a Chinese Korean drug dealer. However, since none these measures were very efficient, China enforced stricter border controls, and even started to build a fence across the border.


While China has a relatively good chance of crushing North Korean dealers operation on its territory, the situation in North Korea itself is breaking bad, in full accordance with the name of the famous TV series. The drugs continue to spread and there are virtually no factors that can stop this process. The state seemingly cannot do much: Drug dealers are rich and North Korean policemen are very corrupt, so for an average sergeant it would be much easier to take a bribe rather than to attempt to crush the drug market in his town. Sometimes people who are supposed to fight the drug mafia join it instead.

The average person is still quite illiterate about the drugs

Some South Korean newspapers did report that some North Korean secret policemen provide the drug dealers with Chinese raw materials – for a hefty fee, of course. The average person is still quite illiterate about the drugs; few understand that consumption of pingdu causes teeth to fall out, followed by psychiatric disorders and death from thrombophlebitis. A striking example: In one of recent academic articles about the North the author reported that methamphetamine is sometimes given to a marrying couple as a wedding gift.

Mostly our hopes should lie with China. Should Beijing be successful in its fight against the drug menace, it would mean that North Korean dealers would be left without Chinese ephedrine, causing the production of the “ice” to shrink. However, this victory would be a costly one. First, a closed border would mean that would be much harder for the average North Korean to reach China. Second, it would reduce the amount of the unofficial trade, which is the main source of income for many North Koreans and without which they would be left in total destitution. If the drugs continue to spread, however, it may change the image of North Koreans in the eyes of the Chinese. They will start to think of them not as “poor people, who live just like we used under Mao” but “vagabonds and drug addicts,” or as “heartless drug dealers.” Surely they won’t be willing to help North Koreans then.

The saddest part is how little attention is paid to this problem by the media. My guess it is partially because the main cause of the drug plague is not the North Korean regime, but ordinary North Korean dealers, who are acting independent from the Kim dynasty. But the problem continues to grow and some dealers, according to the recent reports, are already probing South Korean market for potential export. We shall see if the South Korean police can be more successful than their Chinese and North Korean colleagues.








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