Denial Hampers North Korea as it Grapples with Meth Epidemic

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
Blocks of methamphetamine confiscated by Chinese police during their latest crackdown on drugs are displayed at the Changsha Public Security Bureau in Changsha city, central China's Hunan province, March 18, 2013.

Recent evidence emerging from North Korea leaves little doubt: in the last decade, starting from 2005-06, the use of narcotics has spread rapidly in North Korea.

Admittedly, the drug problem in North Korea is not anything new. From the early 1970s, the North Korean government initiated a clandestine opiate production program. The drugs produced were exported in order to earn foreign currency. It was North Korean diplomats and other officials who were tasked with transporting and peddling the drugs overseas. Predictably, the scheme led to recurrent diplomatic scandals in places as different as Norway and Egypt. The resultant publicity was not good for the country’s image, to put it mildly.

Around 2005, the North Korean government finally decided to stop, or at least significantly curtail, the state-sponsored drug smuggling program. This was probably a wise if long overdue move, since the economic gain probably did not compensate for the damage the program did to the country’s name.

Roughly around the same time, however, a completely new kind of drug problem came to be associated with North Korea. The new wave of the drug production was not run by the intelligence operatives and sponsored by the state. Instead, this was a small scale, privately run, lab-based production of methamphetamine. The North Korean government did not endorse these activities, even though it was a widespread official corruption that allowed methamphetamine to proliferate.

Actually, the North Korean government had produced the methamphetamine before, using it as a stimulant. This is not unprecedented, since during the Second World War not only the Japanese and Germans, but also Americans and British armed forces used methamphetamine and amphetamine-type stimulants widely.

Initially, meth was produced for private export to China, but before too long, drug deals found customers inside North Korea. A meth epidemic began and continues to this day.

The major problem is that the majority of North Koreans are not fully aware of the dangers associated with the use of crystal meth. Many believe that this kind of drug is only mildly addictive and hence drugs are frequently taken for recreation purposes or stimulants by those engaged in demanding work. Alarmingly, drugs are frequently given as presents, even as birthday presents, to friends, and in some cases are used for in-kind payment (a la cigarettes).

The North Korean authorities are aware that the meth epidemic is dangerous, but their response remains limited due to political constraints. The North Korean government cannot bring itself to openly admit that it has a serious drug problem because for decades, such problems have been presented in their propaganda as something that might happen only in the immoral and depraved capitalist societies. Thus, a public health campaign has to remain hushed and rather limited in its scale.

It is also remarkable that the authorities take quite a lenient attitude in punishing drug dealers and makers. First, most of them use bribes to maintain cozy relations with local police and security services, thus remaining relatively secure. Second, if apprehended, they are usually given relatively mild sentences. In North Korea, possession of a Chinese mobile that can be used for making overseas calls is usually punished with the same level of severity as running a meth lab.

Even when education campaigns are conducted, the focus seems to be wrong. Instead of emphasizing the damage that drugs are likely to inflict on individual health and well-being, educational materials instead tend to use patriotic slogans, emphasizing that drug use is bad for the glory of the country. The North Korean population might be fairly nationalistic by international standards, but such high-minded rhetoric is not particularly effective when it comes to combating drug abuse.

Of course, fear of exposure and the desire to keep the scale of the problem secret means that the North Korean government cannot ask for international help and remains largely unaware about the experiences of anti-drug campaigns overseas, as well as about modern ways of treating the drug problem.

In recent years, the situation has seemingly improved somewhat. This partial improvement was an unintended consequence of efforts to seal North Korea’s border with China. Since China remains a large market for drug producers and also a major supplier of necessary components, the stronger border control damaged the drug smuggling network to an extent and slowed down the spread of the drugs. Nonetheless, things remain grim, and the North Korean meth epidemic continues poorly noticed and largely unchecked.

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