last updated September 2022
Narcotics Have Become a Part of Everyday Life – The Issue of Narcotics in North Korea
Amnesty International has recently been focusing on the health and medical situation in North Korea as well as monitoring the status of narcotics use and addiction of North Korean people. During the interviews we had over the last two years with people who left North Korea and settled in the South, narcotics was a topic that never failed to come up.
To give a closer look into the narcotics situation in North Korea, Amnesty International has prepared this information here. As it happens, there was a Ph.D. dissertation on the issue published in 2021. It is titled A Study of North Korea’s Drug Problems: From the Perspective of State-Led Transnational Organized Crime, and the author is Dr. Lee Kwan-hyung, a specialist in North Korean transnational crime and an activist working for a North Korean human rights group.
In early October 2021, Amnesty International met in person with the author of the paper and discussed the reality of narcotics use in North Korea and the problems it posed in terms of human rights. The following are the main parts of the discussion after which the testimonies from in-depth interviews with people who left North Korea and settled in the South on the issue of narcotics use follow.
The Analysis of North Korean Narcotics Issue
The History of Narcotics in North Korea
Amnesty International: Could you tell us briefly about the history of narcotics in North Korea?
Dr. Lee: The problem of state-led production and smuggling of narcotics in North Korea began after the Liberation of Korea in August 1945. To North Korea, narcotics were tactical tools, used for political, military, and economic purposes. And if we were to wind back the clock a bit further, the roots of the narcotics problem grew during the times of Japanese occupation of Korea.
As you know, Japan began wars in East Asia and the Pacific from the 1930s, and wars cost money. Japan exploited various resources from its colonies and ‘poppies’ were one of them. It launched extensive farming of poppies in the occupied territories in mainland China and also in the Korean peninsula, and produced opium. During the times of the Second World War, opium was used for emergency ‘medicine.’ More than that, opium was a ‘commodity’ of great economic value.
Did the production of opium continue to take place in the Korean peninsula even after the Liberation?
It has been confirmed that after the Liberation, North Korean authorities produced opium themselves for medical purposes. The Special Commodities Section of the Agricultural Department under the People’s Council directed the production of opium in the mountain areas of Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces. ‘Sinuiju Pharmaceutical Factory’ could even produce ‘morphine’. However, it seems that North Korea didn’t have the more sophisticated capability to produce high purity ‘heroin,’ at least not until the 1970s.
The Circulation of Narcotics and the Role of the State
Do you think that the North Korean authorities have been directly involved in the production and transaction of narcotics?
Yes, that’s true. For North Korea, narcotics are the state’s commodities. North Korea has a top-down hierarchical command system, so-called ‘monolithic leadership.’ The army, state, and people move under the leader’s orders. The production and export of narcotics are no exceptions. The structure is set up in the way that everything requires the approval of the leading stratum including the supreme leader.
However, up until the 1970s, the authorities covertly dealt with narcotics and it was not widespread among ordinary people. Of course, from the 1950s, households planted a small patch of poppies in their yards. It was the same in South Korea. But the large-scale production of high-quality narcotics required production at the state’s level. Ordinary people in North Korea learned the methods of producing narcotics long after the state had begun mass-producing high purity narcotics in the 1980s.
Besides the production organized by the state, there was an event that put North Korea in the center of controversy in the international community due to narcotics. I mean the series of events in the 1970s when North Korea attempted to smuggle narcotics through its diplomatic offices and diplomats abroad. The issue of narcotics transactions directed by a state began receiving international attention. From the events and information on North Korean narcotics made public so far, it seems that the narcotics that the authorities smuggled were not mass-produced in North Korea before the 1980s. Rather, what they were doing was an intermediate trade where they sold narcotics produced in a third country with an added profit.
Therefore, it is said that up until the mid-1980s, there weren’t any narcotics circulating among ordinary people, except small amounts of opium for medical treatments. One piece of evidence is the ‘Great Korean Dictionary (Joseonmal Daesajeon)’ This dictionary, published between the 1970s to early 1980s, hardly contains vocabulary related to narcotics. This implies that narcotics were not much of an issue at that time.
The State Begins the full-scale Production of Narcotics
Then, did North Korean authorities begin the full-scale production of narcotics in the mid-1980s? That is correct. The spread of narcotics inside North Korea is closely linked to their production led by the state. From the mid-1970s, the North Korean economy began to go downfall. Kim Jong-il was named successor of Kim Il-sung in February 1974, yet he continued projects for the sake of his own achievements. Those projects, which were too much of an overstrain, had a significant impact in inviting the long-term economic recession to follow. The economy was failing yet more money was needed at the same time. The most effective financial solution they found at that point was the sales of weapons and narcotics.
Weapons are generally large in volume. On the other hand, narcotics are small in size and easy to conceal. They were high value-added business with low cost and high returns. Together with other circumstances, it seems that the authorities were determined to make money on a greater scale by jumping seriously into narcotics production beyond the form of intermediate trade or smuggling they had done so far. Thus the state began to direct the production of narcotics.
After that, it seems most of the products were sold abroad. The major midway points in their export routes were North Korean embassies in Russia and China in particular. What calls for attention is that as the full-scale production led by the state began, some of the products began to spread in the private sector through black markets.
The state-directed production of narcotics — where did it take place?
Typical locations included pharmaceutical factories in Hungnam, Sunchon, and Sangwon. To produce narcotics, there has to be a good set of basic infrastructure— geographical location for security, electricity, and water supply required in the production process. Hamhung City, where Hungnam is situated, and Sunchon City both already had plenty of chemical and pharmaceutical infrastructure, with many scientists and residents. Sangwon Pharmaceutical Factory originally belonged to Pyongyang City, but it is now part of North Hwanghae Province close to Pyongyang. All these factories were known as normal pharmaceutical factories to the outside, but evidence kept coming up that they had professional facilities for narcotics production. It seems that there were other similar facilities owned by the army. But they were situated in underground tunnels, making it difficult to locate them even with satellites.
The international community became aware of North Korea’s state-led production and has been monitoring it since then. The North Korean authorities tried to hide their work by halting the production facilities for a while. Then during the halt, some of the technical experts came out into the private sector and began selling narcotics that they personally made. Scientists and experts who had produced narcotics for the state were now in the private sector yet still carrying out their profession. The state-led production of narcotics eventually ended up with the rapid spread of narcotics among ordinary people. You could call it a boomerang effect which the authorities had it coming.
Narcotics Spread Across the State
Then, when did the use of narcotics among ordinary people increase conspicuously?
That would be during the Arduous March in the 1990s. During the Arduous March, almost all state-run facilities stopped, whether the facility was social or production. Pharmaceutical facilities were no exception. Diseases broke out, the number of patients multiplied, and the demand for antibiotics and medicine rose sharply. Yet, with the halt of health and medical service that had been provided by the state, there was no way of getting the necessary medicine. Here at this point, narcotics spread among people like wildfire.
At that time, people were hardly aware of what exactly narcotics were and what side effects they could have. They knew a bit more about opium. They had been using it for medical purposes for a long time. But all they knew was that opium worked well for upset stomachs, diarrhea, and high fever. They were unaware of what consequences it could bring, physically and mentally.
Around a similar time, new types of narcotics other than opium began to go around among people. One was ‘heroin’ and the other was ‘methamphetamine’ which is called ‘philophon’ in South Korea and ‘bingdu’ or ‘ice’ in North Korea. The circulation of heroin in the private sector was rooted out in the early 2000s, but methamphetamine quickly spread.
Would it be correct to say that those new types of narcotics that spread at that time were produced from the state facilities?
Yes, that would be correct. It wasn’t like the authorities had no will to manage and control narcotics. Circulation of narcotics among ordinary people had no benefit whatsoever. The punishments were harsh— an attempt to sneak out narcotics could end up with the death penalty. However, even North Korea, the country notorious for its control, cannot exert 100% control in every area. Some laborers and cadres at the production facilities embezzled some of the methamphetamine products which then made their way to China through private smugglers. During this process, some of the meths were released inside North Korea. From this point onward, the methamphetamine that was meant to be for exports only was also meeting the domestic demand.
Once narcotics spread, no one can really turn things back. Especially, in the case of North Korea, the supply system of medicine had collapsed during the Arduous March, and people, unaware of the seriousness of narcotics, were getting and using them without any second thoughts. Words like ‘This is the panacea!’, ‘This makes you feel good!’ went widely around people, and narcotics became pervasive in every corner of society. Perhaps such phenomenon was natural given that people could not get medicine in hospitals and even basic drugs like antibiotics in marketplaces during the economic hardship of the Arduous March.
Narcotics Control Fails
It seems that the authorities tried to impose strict control over the domestic circulation of narcotics. Why did they fail?
At that time, there were strict punishments but not enough information on how serious or harmful narcotics were. The authorities warned people by issuing a decree that ‘The punishment for any production or circulation of narcotics is death.’ What they didn’t do, it seems, was to tell people exactly what social and medical danger narcotics had. Thus, people didn’t know well about narcotics and their effects, and such unawareness affected their wide circulation. Of course, nowadays people know about the dangers of narcotics to some point, but it would not be easy for them to stop using them. Narcotics is now part of everyday lives.
What if one said the authorities were not simply determined enough to solve the narcotics problem?
The way I see it is that the cadres have a huge responsibility for the increase in narcotics use by ordinary people. To begin with, the group of officials in charge of narcotics control regards narcotics as a source of money. Not just the producers in the private sector, judicial officials, party cadres with power are all on the same ship, all linked in the chain of corruption, each pursuing their own interests. Whatever the policy of the state is, the middle stratum who are supposed to execute it is all corrupt, making it impossible for a policy to be effective in the private sector. All judicial workers —the Prosecutors’ Office, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Social Security— are all linked in the same line.
But sometimes don’t we hear the news that someone involved in narcotics circulation gets punished?
It is just that when the time calls for strict control, the authorities catch the pettiest producers, sellers, or addicts. Now it has become that even cadres cannot easily deal with narcotics magnates who literally control the production and circulation. That is because those magnates are tangled deeply with the cadres themselves and those with power. The state policy may impose tight control on narcotics, but in reality, the state officials are not following it. They are deeply involved in the process of production and circulation and they are addicts themselves. The leading stratum can’t fire those officials nor expel them from the party because without them they can’t control the party and the state.
What percentage of the North Korean population, would you say, is exposed to narcotics in their everyday lives?
We don’t have detailed research on that topic yet. One can’t talk about numbers based on solid evidence as long as the authorities don’t release the proper statistics. However, if I were to quote directly from many of my interviewees, ‘Unless they are idiots or petty creatures, the whole party, the whole army, and the whole people do it.’ What they mean is that there is an abundant number of people exposed to narcotics.
Anyone can get narcotics, but that does not mean the price is cheap. Some question how North Korean people, being poor, manage to do narcotics. People in the South Korean society where narcotics control is relatively strict might question it that way. But, that question is easily solved when one looks at the cases in other countries. Not only North Korean people but people of low income in the third world—Central and South America, and Africa—also do narcotics. People in countries of similar economic standards to North Korea are seriously addicted to narcotics. And if they don’t have enough money, they will get narcotics by becoming retailers or even committing crimes.
The Damages From Narcotics
The rapid spread of narcotics beyond control must have had serious harm on the ordinary people, isn’t this right?
That’s right. The deterioration of health is the first problem. To begin with, over-injection of opium can cause a spasm, coma, and difficulty in breathing. Next, over-injection of methamphetamine can cause an increased level of violence in the mind and a higher probability of cardiovascular or brain conditions in the body. Further, long-term use could lead to weight loss and poor calcium absorption which then lead to corrosion of the bones. That is why methamphetamine addicts have weak bones and teeth.
In the social aspect, narcotics critically hinder labor productivity. The poor health of laborers results in poor performance, in other words, loss of labor power. Methamphetamine is classified as a stimulant, so it is known to increase labor efficiency temporarily because people work without sleep. But in the long-term, the addiction breaks down the person with the deterioration of mind and body. Eventually, narcotics significantly weaken the productivity of not only the individual but also of society as a whole.
Also, one can mention the break up of families and the increased number of crimes. During the Arduous March, families were ruined by financial reasons. Nowadays, families are frequently ruined by narcotics. Once addicted, the person will try to make money for narcotics by any means necessary. They would even commit crimes including theft, robbery, and human trafficking. In the end, a society soaked in narcotics is bound to go downfall.
The Actions Taken by the Authorities
Above all, it seems that active work by the North Korean authorities is required for the safety of people.
North Korea introduced its narcotics regulations law in 2003. After the year 2000, the narcotics problem in the state became so serious that the authorities became aware of its gravity and made related laws.
However, the point is that the narcotics regulations law was not simply for domestic control. It was also a kind of display to the international community. There was a case so-called ‘Pong Su incident’ in April 2003. North Korean cargo ship Pong Su tried to smuggle 150kg of heroin into Australia but was caught by Australian joint military and police surveillance. The incident made headlines and North Korea disgraced itself in the international community. Shortly after, North Korea introduced the narcotics regulations law in August 2003 and amended it in May 2005. Though most of the crew of Pong Su was found not guilty due to lack of evidence in 2006, North Korea joined a series of international conventions on narcotics in 2007: Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The reason why North Korea introduced related laws and joined related international conventions was that it faced international condemnations. There had been doubts about North Korea’s involvement in major crimes linked to narcotics. It turned out to be true and it was made public.
One could say that even a state like North Korea is conscious of criticisms from the international community.
North Korea wants to be accepted as a normal state in the international community. Therefore, at least, they try to display their endeavor in abiding by the international standards, even it is only for the sake of formality. It feels somewhat late for North Korea to join the three international conventions on narcotics mentioned above in 2007. But it was likely that the authorities could not postpone it any further to show that they were not involved in narcotics crime.
Then, would it be true to say that the state authorities are no longer directing the narcotics production?
Looking at the released materials, there hasn’t been a case since 2014 where the authorities were directly linked with narcotics transactions. Based on this fact, some argue that North Korea has stopped the state-directed production and smuggling of narcotics. However, there is also no conclusive evidence that they have stopped it altogether. The international sanctions have trained them to be more skillful in avoiding surveillance from the international community. There is a possibility that the state-directed productions are still taking place, only covertly. And, the authorities could build production facilities in a third country and dispatch the technicians. In this way, they could increase the level of security than in the past when they directly organized the smuggling business. Such possibility has already been confirmed by South Korean intelligence organizations in 1999. Also, though it hasn’t been broadcasted in South Korea, a BBC documentary released on October 11, 2020, titled The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea also confirms the possibility.
Under the strict international sanctions, North Korea has only a few options for obtaining foreign currency. Narcotics is one attractive option with large profits. Globally speaking, the number of consumers of narcotics is increasing and so is the demand for narcotics. The market is growing and North Korea currently has no other goods it can export to help its financial situation. Hence a rational question comes up – can North Korea truly and voluntarily withdraw itself from the global narcotics market?
Duties and Responsibilities
Do you think North Korea has a will to actively tackle the narcotics problem?
On that subject, despite the tough attitude and determination that are seen from the outside, the reality of people’s lives suggests the opposite. So far, the authorities have been taking a stance that there are no narcotics addicts in North Korea. They do not offer accurate information on narcotics let alone the right to access the knowledge. Public executions, notorious for their cruelty, are not the only problems related to people’s rights to life. In a broader sense, it can be said that the authorities’ attitude towards the narcotics issue is aiding and abetting the indirect murder of North Korean people.
The core of the problem is that the authorities organized narcotics production, and the production skills and products spread among ordinary people, making them openly exposed. After all, the whole situation was precipitated by the state and it is a matter of safety that the state should take the responsibility for.
What should the authorities do first of all to solve the narcotics problem?
They have to inform the public in detail about the harms of narcotics. Further, not only should the state impose strict control and regulations on narcotics, but it is also responsible for creating an environment where people are aware of the dangers and able to protect themselves. Most of all, the state’s approach in dealing with narcotics should put the safety of people as its top priority.
Is there anything that the international community can do to help?
Unfortunately, the narcotics issue in North Korea has not yet been publicized in the international community. There is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, but there hasn’t been a proper investigation. There is also the Commission on Narcotic Drugs under the UN Economic and Social Council, and it did mention the seriousness of the problem several times in the 1990s. But it did not go any further than that. I think neighboring countries or countries which has concerns over North Korea should conduct investigations on the reality of narcotics use in North Korea on their own. There is annual INCSR, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released by the US Department of State. It does point out the gravity of narcotics addiction among North Korean people. But this is not enough. The international community has an obligation to investigate not only the narcotics crimes organized by the North Korean authorities but also the human rights situation North Korean people are facing.