After the North Korean coal mine in Hoeryong, a hardscrabble mining town of 130,000 on the Chinese border, stopped paying salaries, Park Kyung Ok tried her hand hawking methamphetamine.
Park used to travel to another North Korean city, Chongjin, to buy meth, known as orum or ice, that she would carry back hidden in a candy box. She would sell it behind the counter at a bicycle parts store at the public market. Hidden among the spare parts were metal plates, burners and other drug paraphernalia.
She usually paid the equivalent of US$17 for a gram of high quality product, which she would then cut with cheaper meth and divide into 12 smaller portions to resell for a few dollars’ profit.
“It was just enough money that I could buy rice to eat and coal for heating,” said Park, who was interviewed recently in China and, like most North Korean defectors, used an assumed name.
North Koreans say there is little stigma attached to meth use. Some take it to treat colds or boost their energy; students take it to work late. The drug also helps curb appetites in a country where food is scarce. It is offered up as casually as a cup of tea, North Koreans say.
“If you go to somebody’s house it is a polite way to greet somebody by offering them a sniff,” said Lee Saera, 43, of Hoeryong, also interviewed in China. “It is like drinking coffee when you’re sleepy, but ice is so much better.”
Despite its draconian legal system, North Korea has long been easygoing about narcotics use. With analgesics scarce, opium paste is commonly sold for pain relief. Marijuana (called “mouth tobacco”) is legal and frequently grown at home to be mixed in with rolling tobacco.
Through the 1990s, the North Korean government ran the production of opium, meth and other drugs for Office 39, a unit raising hard currency for late leader Kim Jong-il, according to narcotics investigators. But the North Korean government has largely gone out of the drug business, according to the US State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
North Koreans say meth then appeared on the streets around 2005 and that it came from Hamhung, the one-time center of the nation’s pharmaceutical and chemical industry, and thus a city filled with unemployed scientists and technicians. The industry then spread to Chongjin and the capital, Pyongyang.