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A Brief History of North Korea’s Covert Drug Trafficking

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) regime is suspected of having produced and trafficked vast amounts of illicit drugs for decades, to the detriment of its population.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea claims that the DPRK regime has been ordering the production of illicit drugs since the 1970s. Although initial quantities were estimated to be relatively low, the country’s former supreme leader, Kim Jong-Il, is alleged to have initiated the country’s illicit drug-producing boom in 1998.

According to a defected government official, Kim ordered all collective farms to allocate space for the cultivation of opium poppies. Opium produced was then “sent to the pharmaceutical plants” where it was “processed and refined into heroin […] under the direct control and strict supervision of the Central Government”.

This testimony was corroborated by the CIA when they investigated DPRK in the late 1990s. After covertly watching the country during the US' Clinton administration, the CIA estimated that the DPRK had up to 17,000 acres dedicated to growing poppies, potentially capable of producing 44 tonnes of opium per year. Although this land could have been used to grow much-needed food, opium poppies were considerably more profitable. In addition, DPRK officials have been averse to allowing prisoners to grow food crops for fear of them eating their own harvest.

After devastating rains damaged opium crops, the DPRK government transformed many of the opium processing plants into methamphetamine labs, as they would not be susceptible to weather or disease. By 2001, the value of the produced drugs had exploded, according to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In that year, the country’s legitimate exports were estimated to total $650 million, while the nation’s income from illegal drugs was estimated at between $500 million and $1billion.

The secrecy of the state has prevented clear information of its drug production from being public, but trafficked substances have been interdicted by intended export markets. Between 2004 and 2005, the Chinese government – one of the DPRK's few allies – announced that it had intercepted shipments of methamphetamine and MDMA being trafficked from North Korea.

In 2013, two years after Kim Jong-Un replaced his father as supreme leader, a US drug bust of DPRK-linked smugglers brought further allegations of government involvement. Ye Tiong Tan Lim, a member of the group arrested for conspiring to import 100 kilograms of North Korean methamphetamine into the US, claimed that the DPRK government had destroyed and relocated drug labs in an attempt to convince Americans that the trade had been shut down.

The North Korean state news agency, KCNA, claims that "illegal use, trafficking and production of drugs" do not occur in the DPRK, but anecdotal evidence paints a different picture. Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, interviewed DPRK defectors about the prevalence of drug use in society. Their claims included a social acceptance of cannabis use, the use of opium paste for pain relief, and methamphetamine being offered socially, “as casually as a cup of tea”.

This proliferation of illegal drugs in North Korea, coupled with the disinterest of the government in offering any safeguards or harm reduction, has allegedly led to many people becoming addicted to methamphetamine. However, the opaque nature of the state means that any statistics are unverifiable.

International pressure may have played a part in the destruction of certain state-run laboratories, but its effect on the large-scale illicit drug production that profits the DPRK government is unknown. Whilst illicit drugs remain immensely profitable, and the North Korean government remains desperate for cash for its hugely expensive nuclear weapons programme, the situation is unlikely to change. The regime’s continued involvement in illegal international drug trafficking will undoubtedly continue to have harmful consequences for the North Korean people.

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