There’s something fishy about those fish! North Korean smugglers are using frozen seafood to sneak large quantities of methamphetamine into China, prompting authorities there to crack down on fisheries products imported from their northeastern neighbor.
Known locally under the street name “ice,” and as crystal meth in the west, the drugs are hidden in the body cavities of fish and transported to China for sale. When the crackdown began in early December residents of the Chinese border city of Dandong thought mistakenly that authorities were cracking down on illegal seafood.
“They thought the authorities were trying to stop smuggled North Korean fish,” said a trader from the city.
“But now we know they were cracking down on North Korean fisheries products because a whole lot of ice has been hidden in frozen fish and smuggled here,” the source said.
The source said the two specific types of seafood that smugglers favor have now vanished from markets.
“Ice can be secretly hidden in the stomachs of frozen squid or sailfin sandfish, so now there are no North Korean squid or sandfish at the local markets,” the source said.
“The cold storage for North Korean fishery products is also being monitored by the Chinese police, so owners of these fishery products can’t take their fish out of storage [during the crackdown],” said the source.
The source said there was no way of knowing how long the crackdown would last.
“This is a drug investigation,” the source said, adding, “[it] is taken very seriously, and the progress of the investigation is not public information.”
“The police think that ice hidden in North Korean fish has been entering China for quite some time now, and they are assuming that a large amount of ice has already been smuggled in. It’s a very serious problem,” said the source.
Bribing border officials
Another border city source said that corrupt North Korean officials are likely in on the fishy drug scheme.
“If North Korean drugs were smuggled into China in frozen fish, it is highly likely that the North Korean authorities are involved,” the second source said.
“All North Korean fishery products exported to China are controlled by North Korean state-run trading companies,” added the second source.
The crackdown is likely to cause major losses for the majority of seafood smugglers, who work to evade U.N. sanctions designed to pinch North Korea’s income to deter spending on nuclear weapons, and who don’t run drugs.
“It will be difficult to bring North Korean fishery products to China until this drug smuggling case is solved and the culprits are arrested. What’s more, all the usual smuggling agents have disappeared since [the crackdown started,]” said the second source.
“If the investigation results reveal that the culprits have a link to a North Korean fish exporter, and the quantity of smuggled drugs so far, there could be a significant backlash,” said the second source.
“Given the seriousness of this issue, there is even the possibility that it could escalate into diplomatic friction between North Korea and China,” the second source said.
“As ice is a very serious drug that takes a huge toll on [users’ lives], China’s judicial authorities severely punish meth users,” the second source said.
“According to Chinese law, those who trade more than 50 grams of meth can face the death penalty, and there is no exception for foreigners.”
According to a 2015 Christian Science Monitor report that cited Chinese officials, meth replaced heroin as China’s most popular drug in that year. In that report, the Narcotics Control Bureau of the Chinese police estimated the number of drug addicts in the country to be about 13 million, with half addicted to meth.
Bribery on the high seas
North Korean fishermen have been known to bribe the Russian Coast guard so they can fish in Russian waters, according to local sources.
The bribe is prepared in advance of a fishing trip, and if the fishermen are caught, they get out of trouble by giving the Russians money or Korean specialties like ginseng.
Reported by Joonho Kim and Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.