North Korea’s National Academy of Sciences Supplies Drug Manufacturers With Raw Materials, Lab Equipment

nk-science A biotech scientist in Pyongyang's National Academy of Sciences conducts research.
Yonhap News

Plagued by underfunding and under state pressure to produce results, North Korea’s National Academy of Sciences is selling chemicals and lab equipment to drug manufacturers.

The academy is a central administrative agency affiliated with the North Korean cabinet and plays a key role in managing the overall scientific policy planning in the reclusive state, but due to budgeting shortages, the academy has been working with drug dealers to make ends meet.

“Technology policy became a priority for the regime a few years ago. Since then, the National Academy of Sciences has grown, but now it is selling raw materials and equipment for drug manufacturing to make foreign cash,” said a source from South Pyongan province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

The source said the academy sells a reagent called cyanbenzyline and “scientific laboratory equipment” that is useful for drug manufacturers.

According to a North Korean defector in South Korea, cyanbenzyline is a source material for phenylacetate, which is used in the production of methamphetamine.

“Everything is done in secret. They sell the reagent and the lab equipment at a store for scientists located outside the academy,” said the South Pyongan-based source.

“The state opened this store for scientists, but it has alcoholic beverages, oils and snacks on display. The materials for the drugs are piled up in storage and the manufacturers often visit the store [to buy raw materials or lab equipment,]” the source said.

Another source, from North Pyongan province said that after Kim Jong Un came to power, Pyongyang’s Unjong district, where the academy is located, became North Korea’s base for scientific development, and an integral piece of North Korea’s economy.

“[Kim] inspected the National Academy of Sciences in January last year. He told them science and tech development is of the highest priority and ordered them to make strenuous efforts to achieve their research goals,” the source said.

The source explained that this newfound level of importance also brought with it more scrutiny from the authorities.

“[They] have to keep tabs on the performance of researchers and report to the Workers’ Party more than ever before, and they have been concerned about underfunding,” said the source.

“The execs are now selling chemicals to drug dealers to raise funds, the source said, adding, “[It] has become a corrupt institution that encourages drug manufacturing."

North Korea is well known for utilizing the drug trade as a source of foreign cash, and had been doing so as far back as at least the 1970s under the direction of the Kim Il Sung regime. A report published in 2014 by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea details how in 1976, the country defaulted on international debts and its embassies were told to “self-finance” through drug-smuggling.

The report also revealed that a major shift away from drug trafficking and towards state-sponsored methamphetamine production occurred in the mid-1990s signaling a change in strategy after Kim Jong Il came to power and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A 2014 article by NK News explained that between 2004 and 2005 North Korea decided to stop exporting narcotics and the workers of one of the regime’s largest production facilities sold the technology to the public. This led to an accelerated spread of meth in the domestic market.

RFA sources claim that meth, under the street name “ice” is so common in North Korea that it is exchanged as a gift during the Lunar New Year holiday. In some cases, private North Korean producers are now looking to expand their operations outside of the country.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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