Drugs History

My Meth Dealer, Kim Jong-il

How North Korea’s brief meth venture created an internal addiction crisis.

In Eastern Asia, the Lunar New Year is a big deal. The beginning of a new year according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, you could say it’s the closest thing people in East Asia have to Christmas. You’d be wrong, of course; they have Christmas, all twelve herbs and spices included. As far as pre-Christian, pre-colonial analogues go, though, the Western Christmas-New Year season is a pretty good place to start.

Celebrations of the lunar new year vary depending on country and region; the length of the festivities can last between a few days on the low end and over three weeks on the high. It’s a complex series of differing traditions built up over millennia; that’s a lot for most white Americans to understand, myself included. The next few paragraphs sum up what I’ve learned over a brief period of cursory research. They reduce the complexity of the situation to a few bad jokes and, as such, should be disregarded entirely.

Compared to Christmas, gift giving during the lunar new year is a little more complex. Over here, children are given whichever toy is most loudly advertised when Paw Patrol is on, and adults are given novelty socks that I just knew you’d get a kick out of. In China, though, anything goes. Except clocks, obviously, given that the Mandarin word for clock sounds like the word for funeral. Wouldn’t want to conjure up that image. And, of course, a handkerchief is a non-starter, given that the word for that sounds like a way to say goodbye, which could be confusing if you’re not trying to say goodbye. If you weren’t intending on buying someone a handkerchief because a snot rag is a weird holiday gift, you’re still in the clear. Naturally, shoes are a bad idea, since we wear shoes when we walk away from people. Anything that can be somehow linked to funerary tradition is also bad, but that’s obvious. Another obvious one: a green hat. Why no green hats? Say it with me “the Mandarin word for ‘green hat’ sounds like the Mandarin word for ‘cuckold’”. No green hats.

If these traditional no-gos inspire confusion, that’s not a problem; more important than gifts are “red envelopes”, small, cash-sized envelopes containing cash. In China, elders and married people are expected to give them out to children who ask nicely. Of course, just like you’d want to pick a good gift, if you’re giving out money, it’s important to pick the right amount. So, where do we start? Singles? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? …millions? Actually, the number of digits aren’t as important as what those digits are. In Mandarin, the word for the number four sounds like the word for death, which is even more unpleasant than anything above. Should’ve kept the green hat. The number eight sounds like “wealth”, though, which is great, and six sounds like “smooth”, which is… yeah, turns out that’s also really good.

These are all things people on the internet have written about the Lunar New Year. The level of truth each individual thing holds is probably variable and highly dependent on culture and location. Given that China alone has a population of 1.4 billion (Cool math fact: if China misplaced 1 billion of its people, it would still have more citizens than the United States. Wow!), it’s a tiny bit likely that not everyone in the country is quaking at the idea of receiving a green hat. Likewise, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Mongolia are all different countries with their own twists on the gift-giving tradition.

Gifts in each of these countries could follow a variety of traditions or buck the trend completely and do something new, but if you’re going to go against tradition, your gift had better be damn good. In North Korea, the hot item is crystal meth.

Determining how widespread meth use is in North Korea is difficult; one source quoted by the Wall Street Journal estimated that 40 to 50% of North Koreans are “seriously addicted to the drug”. The article goes on to clarify that the methodology for arriving at those numbers isn’t clear, and that it’s worth questioning how such a high percentage of North Koreans would be able to afford meth when so many in the country can’t afford food. Meth can act as an appetite suppressant, but it’s a more expensive one than food. The article later identifies a Brookings Institution report from 2010 that concurs with the assessment that the meth addiction rate was significant and on the rise, but denies the 40-to-50 range.

Meth in North Korea is considered a luxury, but folks also imbibe the stuff openly. They’d take regular meth breaks from work if breaks were allowed. Expert Andrei Lankov told the New York Times that meth is largely seen as a kind of “very powerful energy drug — something like Red Bull, amplified”, which is as amazing as it is terrifying. Imagine a horde of school of hard knocks graduates with bad meth tattoos. But inhaling meth at the rate a high school edgelord can throw back Monster is alarming.

It’s also worth noting that this energy drug is being used less for late night Call of Duty binges and more to stay coherent during oppressive factory floor hours. Less “mattress brawl”, more “Nazi supersoldiers”. That’s fitting, given that, according to the New York Times, defectors have reported that the North Korean military armed its soldiers with meth in the aftermath of World War II. It’s a reverse Yang Kyoungjong.

That same Times article refers to use of meth as an alternative medicine cure-all. It’s a new spin on crystal healing. The Daily Beast reports that camgirls and karaoke hostesses partake in smoking meth with their clients, calling it “ice skating”, which teaches me that North Korea has both cam girls and ice skating. You learn something new every day.

The lunar new year may be the height of the family-friendly meth trade in North Korea, but its not its sole hotspot. Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher quoted by the New York Times said that meth is a go-to gift for birthdays and graduations as well. Put college off for a couple semesters and spend a gap year ruining your life.

So meth is everywhere, but North Korea is a country that struggles to get its hands on food. How is meth so plentiful? Evidence points to one conclusion: the meth is coming from inside the house country. Not only that, though, it’s coming from the top: the North Korean government is producing crystal meth.

It starts at Office 39, the Korean government’s uber-secretive slush fund/crime factory. The department’s inner workings are intimately-kept state secrets, but reports indicate that it’s involved in activities ranging from the counterfeiting of American currency to the distribution of North Korean laborers to foreign markets, from lumber farms in Siberiato the construction of soccer stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. They also run a restaurant chain. It’s called Pyongyang and it has locations all over the former communist bloc, from Moscow to China and Vietnam. They had a franchise in Amsterdam for a year or two in the early 2010s, but the Dutch palate isn’t well-acclimated to North Korean cuisine. Some reports have suggested that Kim Jong-un had a specific interest in opening a Pyongyang location in Scotland following that country’s failed 2014 independence referendum.

Like a true capitalist conglomerate in North Korea’s communist wasteland, Office 39 is diversified. Beside the counterfeit cash, slave labor, and casual family dining, Office 39 makes drugs. Meth’s their big boy now. We’ve talked about that. But their first foray into drug manufacturing and distribution came in the 1970s, when the Korean government cultivated a production program for the growing and selling of opium. The Daily Beast reports that major flooding and agricultural disasters “devastated the crops” and that the government then turned, instead, to a drug that could be created rapidly and in large quantities in a laboratory environment. Breaking Bad fans know where I’m going with this. Also you, assuming you read the ten paragraphs before this one where I wrote extensively about meth.

The chemical precursors for meth production come in over the border from China, largely through illicit backroom trading. The actual production of the drug is reported to take place in pharmaceutical factories in Hamgyong, a province on the Chinese border.

Next comes distribution. Here in America, the name of the game in traditional drug selling is territory; the more space you can cover with dealers, the more people you can sell to, the more money you can make. North Korea has a problem; its territory is relatively small: about half of the Korean peninsula. Outside of that territory, its reach is limited; citizens aren’t usually allowed to leave unless they’re building soccer stadiums (for an international organization that’s apparently super cool with that). But these rules don’t apply to all North Koreans. North Korea maintains an embassy or consulate in somewhere around 48 countries and on all continents. Its ambassadors are the most far-flung of the Pyongyang government’s people. So we come to the answer any sane government would come to: let’s have the ambassadors sell drugs.

And that’s what they did. North Korean ambassadors did sell drugs. But, to be fair, that program was relatively short-lived and ended after word got out that North Korean ambassadors were selling drugs. Since then, the North Korean meth operation has downsized. Rather than pushing the drug flow through their proprietary worldwide embassy pipeline (Season 4 Breaking Bad), their current distribution scheme relies on low-level illicit trade across the Chinese border (Season 1 Breaking Bad) and outsourcing the selling to third-party gangs and associates like the Chinese Triads (Season 5 Breaking Bad).

Today, we don’t know how involved in the meth trade the North Korean government is, because they operate under a thin layer of plausible deniability. Meth production still undoubtedly occurs in North Korea, but the more small-time transactions and the already-existing collection of North Korean citizens trained to make meth with or without government supervision makes a source hard to pin down. A 2013 international narcotics control report published by the U.S. State Department notes that “no confirmed reports of large-scale drug trafficking involving DPRK state entities” have been filed since 2004. The report goes on to acknowledge that this could indicate that the industry has shut down, but it could also mean the North Korean government finally got good at making and distributing meth (Season 3 Breaking Bad). 

In China, North Korea’s biggest meth market, (relatively) recent drug busts inside the country have put a damper on the previously-flourishing trade. According to the Daily Beast, China acknowledges a meth problem in its northeastern provinces, but stops shy of identifying the producer; North Korean stability is still important for the Chinese government. Still, that same article reported that Chinese police seized $60 million worth of North Korean meth in 2010, noting it to be “only a fraction of what was actually shipped worldwide”.

The reports I’ve cited for claims of government-involved meth production mostly come from the 2000s and early 2010s. Like its meth dealer statesmen program, the North Korean government may have discontinued its production of meth entirely. The stories about the popularity of meth within the country are much more recent, from the last couple of years. Today, the prospects and value of North Korean meth abroad are variable, but the impact at home seems huge, violating the time-honored maxim “don’t shit where you eat” (Season 2 Breaking Bad) and saddling the world’s best-known dystopia with yet one more crisis. At least there’s ice skating.

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Also: Episode 136 “The Founder” of Reply All concerns an international crime kingpin who claimed to have bought and sold meth from North Korea.

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