Within secretive North Korea, there appears to be an epidemic of crystal meth so widespread that, in some communities, more than 50 per cent of people are users, according to a report released by two Seoul-based academics.
Professor Kim Seok-hyang, of the Department of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, says little is known about the drug’s harmful effects in North Korea, and so many myths have developed about its medical benefits, that parents often give it to their children oblivious to the harm they may be doing. In small doses, crystal meth relieves pain and induces a feeling of euphoria and well-being.
The report, “A New Face of North Korean Drug Use” by Kim and Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University’s College of Social Studies, found that there has been a dramatic upsurge in methamphetamine use in rural northern areas of North Korea since 2005, which, they say, now constitutes an epidemic. The testimony of 21 defectors – combined with official reports from North Korea and China – presents what the academics say is “a worrying picture of escalating drug abuse in what was once one of the world’s most strictly supervised and controlled societies”. The report was written for the academic journal North Korea Review.
Throughout the Korean war and cold war years, soldiers were reportedly fed methamphetamine made in state-run factories to bolster their endurance and help them stay alert for days on end. The practice endured long after the years of direct conflict. North Korea became notorious for its production and distribution of drugs. For decades, defectors have testified that methamphetamine was produced at plants in Hamhung, South Hamgyong province, and Sangwon, near Pyongyang, both for illicit export to China, to generate hard currency, and for officially sanctioned domestic use, largely among the country’s military.
Around 2004, however, everything changed. Either because of a lack of money or in an attempt to clean up the country’s image, production of the drug at government- run pharmaceutical plants was scaled down or stopped altogether – a development that triggered an explosive growth in the number of private “kitchen labs” in Hamhung and other areas. The drug, now being produced on a far greater scale, is being made, it is claimed, by the technicians and scientists who once worked in state factories.
Crystal meth then became popular among professional men in their 30s and 40s who wanted to increase their endurance because of their work or status, testimony suggests. As talk of its medicinal and recreational benefits spread in North Korea, the drug began to be used by the broader population, who reasoned that, if it was being used by rich people, it must be safe and beneficial. Finally, in 2009-10, the habit spread to the young – high school and college students.
Defectors interviewed by the Seoul academics spoke of “at least 50 per cent” of people in some communities in the north of the country as being users. And most people remain convinced of its benefits.