The People’s Cartel

The recent death of Kim Jong-Il, supreme leader of North Korea, came as a surprise to many. He had ruled North Korea with an iron fist since 1994 and had exerted almost complete control over all aspects of citizens’ lives.

The infamous leader was responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in recent human history. The country was known to regularly torture and execute its citizens. Its failed Stalinist system was responsible for destroying the country’s economy and helped exacerbate the famine of the 1990s which is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people.

The situation has become so desperate that thousands regularly brave the dangerous underground ‘railroad’ to China in order to escape the country. It is believed that nearly 90% of its factories are out of use and only the capital has access to regular electricity. With a broken economy and little in the way of international aid, how on earth then does this country continue to survive?

Dealing drugs. Yes that’s correct. As unbelievable as that may sound, it is widely believed that the country not only produces illegal drugs but also smuggles these substances around the world.

One of the most shocking incidents, linking North Korea to the drug trade, occurred off the coast of Australia in 2003. A 4,480 ton freighter was seen attempting to manoeuvre its way around the coast. For a day in a half the stranded ship attempted to navigate out of a particularly dangerous stretch of water. Unable to move though, the ship was seen to launch a speed boat carrying two men and the ship’s cargo: 110 pound of high quality heroin. Unfortunately for the sailors the waves were too rough and the speedboat was destroyed. Only one of the men and the $50 million worth of heroin made it safely to shore.

The police promptly arrested the man and the suspected buyers in a nearby town. The freighter, known as the Pong Su, attempted to escape but after a four-day chase, the vessel was boarded by Australian commandos who arrested the remaining 29 crew members.  

What makes this story so unbelievable though is the fact that the vessel was registered to a North Korean company known as Pong Su Management.

It could be possible that this incident was merely an example of a rogue operative within the company but given the fact that North Korea is such a tightly controlled and centralised country this seems unlikely. Accord to Cho Sung Kwon, a South Korean Criminologist who has advised his country’s intelligence services on North Korea, it is highly likely that the state knew and sanctioned the incident. He states that: "North Korea is a socialist country, so everything is closely monitored and controlled." (N. Korea's Growing Drug Trade Seen in Botched Heroin Delivery, Washington Post, 21/05/2003)
The North Korean government claimed the Pong Su was a ‘civilian trading ship’ and that the management had no knowledge of the heroin aboard the vessel.

This was not an isolated incident though as since 1976 more than 20 North Korean diplomats, agents and trade officials have been implicated, detained or arrested in drug-smuggling operations in more than 20 countries, including Egypt, Venezuela, India, Germany, Nepal, Sweden, Zambia, Ethiopia and Laos. (Curtailing North Korea's Illicit Activities, Balbina Y. Hwang, 2003, p.3)  The first of these incidents involved a North Korean diplomat who was found with 880 pounds of hashish. (Washington Post, 21/05/2003) This is the tip of the iceberg though as officials have been caught with heroin, amphetamines and even rhohypnol!
This involvement in the drugs trade is therefore known to be widespread and believed to be sanctioned at the highest levels.
There have been attempts at estimating the amount of money the country generates through the drug trade. In 1999 the US Congressional Research Service made a ‘conservative estimate’, believing that the countries criminal activity ‘generated about 86 million in 1997 – $71 million from drugs and $15 million from counterfeiting.’ A more recent estimate, calculated in 2003, put the figure at between $500 million and $1 billion a year (North Korea’s Connection to International Trade in Drugs, Counterfeiting, and Arms, Larry M. Wortzel, 2003 p.3) This figure may seem outrageous but if we remember the amount of heroin that was found aboard the Pong Su, it may not seem so ridiculous.
According to statements made by defectors, North Korea seems to be primarily engaged in the cultivation of opium and the production of methamphetamine. According to reports the country has anywhere from 4,200 to 7,000 hectares under poppy cultivation. A North Korean defector stated that in 1997 Kim Jong-Il ordered each collective farm to grow 25 acres of poppies. It should be noted that this was during the height of the famine! In 1999 South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believed the country was producing up to 50 tons of opium a year, as well as 5 tons of morphine and heroin for export (Curtailing North Korea's Illicit Activities, p.3)
As for methamphetamine, the country is believed to have begun producing it in the 1990s, due to the drought the country was experiencing, as well as in response to growing demand from Japan. Total figures for the amounts produced are largely unknown but it is believed that the North Korean product accounts for a third of all meth in Japan! On the streets North Korean meth is known for its quality and purity as well as its impeccable packaging. (Time Magazine, Kim’s Rackets, 2003)
The conditions under which these drugs are produced also seem to be appalling. A defector who lives in Seoul told reporters about the involvement of children in the harvesting of poppies. According to him: "the boys used to work for 40 minutes, the girls for only 30 minutes. You would get dizzy if you stayed too long… We didn't really know what it was, and we didn't ask. When I think back on it, I realize that North Korea is an ideal place to grow and export drugs because nobody will question the authorities or even question whether it is legal." (N. Korea's Growing Drug Trade Seen in Botched Heroin Delivery, Washington Post, 21/05/2003)
The production of meth was believed to have started in Hamheung, the country’s second largest city, which has a chemical industry which would be able to manufacture the drug. Although we do not know the scale of production, we can assume it is produced on an industrial scale. In 1999 Indian police withheld a shipment of 2.5 tons of ephedrine, a chemical used in the production of meth. Although this is a commonly used hay fever medicine the amounts discovered suggested it was not being used for this purpose. A former North Korean diplomat stated it was ‘enough ephedrine to last North Korea 100 years," (Time, Kim’s Rackets, 2003)
According to a Time Magazine article, this state sanctioned drug production also seems to be an intrinsic part of the country’s foreign trade and is secretly linked to an official institution known as Bureau 39. This government department is the head quarters for nearly all of the North Korea’s foreign-exchange-earning businesses, legal and illegal. As well as dealing with the sales of ginseng tea the department is also responsible for the countries drug smuggling and counterfeiting businesses.
Overseas this department has many names, for example in Austria it is known as the ‘Golden Star Bank’ whereas in Macau it goes by the name ‘Zokwang Trading Co.’ According to Kim Dong Hun, a former North Korean business operative, ‘if you cut off Bureau 39…you can kill Kim Jong-Il. Kim can’t exist as leader of North Korea.’
Whilst working for the Bureau Kim was apparently tasked with helping the drug smuggling operation. His work led him to cutting deals with the Japanese Yakuza as well as smuggling boxes of what was believed to be heroin into China. He estimates that during this period he earned nearly $1 million for the country in 6 years. (Time, Kim’s Rackets, 2003)
In recent years the seizures of North Korean drugs have fallen and many have speculated that the country may be reducing its trade in illegal substances, especially since the Pong Su incident. Recent reports concerning the countries own drug problems paint a different picture though. North Korea may in fact be developing an internal market.
Newly arrived defectors have spoken of the country’s growing addiction to ‘bingdu’, North Korean slang for methamphetamine. According to these sources many women who face the double burden of farm labour and maintaining a household regularly use the drug to cope with the physical and mental stress. ('Bingdu' Prevalence Difficult to Grasp, The Daily NK, 23/05/2011)

Other defectors have spoken about the drugs prevalence among the youth. A source from Yankang Province told reporters that, “Between students of 14-18, it’s so bad that if you don’t do ‘bingdu’ you are branded a loser. It was only small when it started in 2007, but at this point you would probably find 5 to 7 kids in any class of 30 doing it.” (Ibid)

There are also stories of the drug being marketed as a ‘strong antibiotic’. As one defector said “Because there is no medicine in North Korea, the thing they use as a cure-all is drugs.” (Ibid)
We of course will probably never know the true extent of the drug problem, but in a country with so many other troubles the addition of a widespread meth addiction can do nothing but harm. According one defector from Chongjin in North Hamgyung Province: “Each administrative unit in the city is made up of communities of about 1600 households, and of these households about 60% of young people aged 16 to 30 were taking drugs. It’s probably more now.” (ibid) If this is correct then the situation in the country is truly dreadful.
With so much evidence, it would be impossible to deny North Korea’s involvement in the illegal drug trade. Many documented cases have shown how the country has, for the past 40 years, both produced and distributed these substances. There are clear links with government institutions as well as many examples of diplomats and state operatives being caught red handed. With the problem of drug addiction now spreading to the already decimated native population, this is a problem that can none longer be ignored. North Korea is a true example of a narco-state. It has created a nationalised industry of drug pushing, which is slowly killing its own population.