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North Korea “Increasing Crystal Meth Production” Due to Economic Sanctions

State-affiliated companies in North Korea are increasing the illicit production and trafficking of crystal meth amid the economic turmoil caused by UN-imposed sanctions, according to regional sources.

To compensate for recently-imposed sanctions on the trade of its natural resources, as well as other economic sanctions, North Korea – also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – has allegedly boosted the illegal domestic production of crystal methamphetamine.

“North Korean state companies and merchants have been waiting for the export markets to re-open ever since sanctions began having a significant impact [earlier] this year. Now [that] trade has been shut down for the coal exporters due to the country’s missile launches … they are turning to drug production and smuggling as a replacement,” a DPRK-based source claimed, according to DailyNK. DailyNK is the main English-language source covering developments in DPRK; it is headquartered in Seoul, but sources information from informants in DPRK, as well as people who have defected across the border to South Korea.

“The base ingredient [phenylacetic acid] is smuggled in from China and then sold to producers in North Korea, who make the 'ice'", the source added. The methamphetamine is then trafficked domestically and internationally by non-state actors who have gained tacit complicity from the state, another source alleges: "government officials use the drug supply chain as an opportunity to take bribes, resulting in pronounced levels of corruption and bribery”.

Illegal involvement with drug markets may seem especially attractive to the DPRK regime, as sanctions have led to the country being increasingly economically cut-off from legal global markets. On August 5, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2371, which declared that DPRK "shall not supply, sell or transfer coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead and lead ore to other countries". This resolution was adopted due to fears among UN member states that DPRK would use income from the trade of these resources to fund its nuclear weapon programme. This came days after DPRK authorities vowed to launch a nuclear strike on "the heart of the US".

Definitive information about drug production and trafficking in DPRK is difficult to come by due to the secretive nature of the state, however numerous reports from Korean and foreign sources suggest that the regime has been complicit in the illegal production and distribution of methamphetamine for over a decade.

As TalkingDrugs has reported, huge quantities of DPRK-originating methamphetamine have been intercepted by foreign countries. Most prominently, in 2013, US authorities arrested five men for attempting to smuggle 100 kilograms of DPRK-produced methamphetamine into the country. Prior to the arrests, in a secret recording by the US’ Drug Enforcement Agency, one of the men revealed to an informant that "the NK government already burned all the [meth] labs to show Americans that they are not selling it any more, they burned it. [But in reality,] they transfer [the meth] to another base".

Methamphetamine in the DPRK is not being solely produced for international markets. The drug’s use has become ubiquitous across the country, according to researchers. Due to the apparent lack of harm reduction measures in the country, this is likely leading to severe health consequences.  “As North Korea does not have the possibility to solve drug addiction, many North Koreans are simply continuing to use drugs despite the negative effects on their mental and physical health”, the Database Center For North Korean Human Rights said in a statement.

As DPRK becomes increasingly isolated on the world stage, it is yet to be seen if its regime will become more deeply involved with the drug trade, or even other illicit markets.

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