A crackdown on drugs in North Korea is sending many users across the country on long trips in pursuit of their means of pleasure.
“Border control has become a lot tighter, making methamphetamine harder to get”, a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK. The blanket crackdowns, aimed at curtailing defections, illegal phone calls and human trafficking as well as drug smuggling, have adversely affected North Korean’s once-buoyant drug production market: domestic production has decreased significantly, as those in the industry look for other ways to make money.
“Some residents with strong addictions are even traveling to areas where the drugs are produced. In the past, you could get meth in provincial black markets, but these days this has become more challenging, so people are seeking out places where it’s [still] being made.”
The lack of supply is sending addicts – often in groups – to the major crystal meth-producing cities of Hamhung and Sunchŏn, where supply is still reliable.
“Currently, it’s very hard to find anyone in Hyesan [on the Chinese border] who smuggles or sells drugs. Some people who use meth will travel to Hamhung and then climb through the mountains on foot to get back to Hyesan”, she said, describing a 360-mile round journey.
She added, “State Security Department and Ministry of People’s Security officials have figured out that people head to meth-producing cities [to buy drugs] – so officials spend a lot of time on the streets.”
Though the North Korean government has been widely accused of profiting from the production and smuggling of methamphetamine, a tough line is officially taken against drug abuse.
In 2013, state news agency KCNA said unequivocally: “The illegal use, trafficking and production of drugs which reduce human beings into mental cripples do not exist in the DPRK.”
Underneath this stark rhetoric, drug use is widespread – and production lucrative. Both are technically illegal, and for those unfortunate enough to be caught and convicted, punishments range from three to six month stints for minor first-time offences to the ever-present fear of execution in extreme cases.
Many of those incarcerated in long-term reeducation or labor camps for drug crimes still pursue their addiction after release.
The state may persistently crackdown on drug abuse, but narcotics are still serve medical and social purposes. DailyNK reported in 2014 that for those wanting to curry favour with an official, “the drug ‘ice’ is seen as an ideal gift”, and is commonly seen as a panacea, curing everything from strokes to back pain.
Much of this proliferation in drugs is attributed to the failing medical system in the country. Healthcare in North Korea is purportedly free, but has deteriorated at a rapid pace since the mid 1990s. Most are required to pay for medication, and connections generally prove more advantageous than financial means alone.
With trust in the state service low, many self-medicate with crystal meth or opium, and end up addicted. One of the residents told the source what started as a method to cope with an inflammation in the gallbladder has become a full-blown addiction to opium. “In difficult times like this, I can’t seem to get by without my drugs. I can’t live with my head clear,” he told our source.
Government crackdowns and surveillance has led to greater pent-up anxiety, and in many ways encouraged the use of such substances, the source added.