Inside North Korea’s Meth Epidemic

By Kelly Burch 02/14/19

“Ice has become a best-selling holiday gift item. Drug dealers don’t have enough supply for their buyers,” said one North Korean source.

people walking in North Korea

One might assume that one of the harshest dictatorships on earth would have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, but reports suggest that North Korea has a thriving methamphetamine market, and that the drug is even a popular gift for the Lunar New Year. 

“Ice has become a best-selling holiday gift item,” a North Korean source told Radio Free Asia. “Drug dealers don’t have enough supply for their buyers.”

According to the New York Times, methamphetamine has long been associated with North Korea. A 2014 report found that the state began manufacturing and exporting methamphetamine in the 1990s as a way to access currency despite trade restrictions.

Most of the meth was exported through China or given at sea to criminal organizations from Japan and China. The production was “clearly sponsored and controlled” by the government, the report found, but it began to decline in the mid-2000s. 

With no government-sanctioned channels to export the drug, many manufacturers began selling to locals. Over time, meth became a popular gift used at celebrations, including New Year's. 

“Since the mid-2000s, drugs have become commonplace and the people now think that the holidays are not a joyful time if there are no drugs for them to enjoy,” the source told Radio Free Asia. “Social stigmas surrounding drug use [have disappeared], so people now feel that something big is missing if they don’t have ice or opium prepared as a holiday gift.”

It’s become so mainstream that people no longer try to hide their use, the source said. 

“In the past, ice users would try to be discreet, not wanting others to know that they were buying, but these days nobody seems to care.”

Political scientist Justin Hastings, who studies North Korean drug trafficking, said that so many officials take bribes that the country’s economy benefits from looking the other way when it comes to meth use. 

“Over time, this has resulted in a culture where people are willing to take risks to make money, and official state prohibition has little meaning,” he said. 

In addition, the culture doesn’t view meth as a powerful and harmful addictive drug, but rather sees it as a small indulgence. North Korea expert Andrei Lankov says that there is a “significant underestimation” about the risks of drug use in North Korea. 

“Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug—something like Red Bull, amplified,” he said.

Despite this attitude, more North Koreans are becoming addicted to the drug, according to a second source who spoke with Radio Free Asia

“An increasing number of people are becoming addicted, and ice is sold even in rural and remote areas,” they said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.