Back in July, we blogged on a spate of stories on the illicit drug trade. Curtis Melvin’s North Korea Economy Watch has a good archive on the topic.
My colleague Barry Naughton alerted us to a recent story in the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly ; we were intrigued because the media in China stays quiet on the issue. But Phoenix picked up a number of South Korean stories on the topic and the magazine has a distribution on the mainland. According to Naughton, the story attracted a lot of microblog commentary on Sina.com.
The Phoenix story notes China’s mounting displeasure with the smuggling and concern that Northeast China is becoming a major transit point. A Newsweek story back in June led with a portrait of growing meth or “ice” addiction in Yanji, which is no doubt part of Beijing's concern. The Northeast—and Jilin in particular—has become the leading area for drug seizures within China; Yong-an Zhang did a succinct portrait of the problem for Brookings about a year ago. According to the original Dong-a Ilbo story that Phoenix cites, Chinese authorities seized $60 million worth of drugs from the country in 2010. The Phoenix story goes on to note that the drug trade is controlled by DPRK leaders and that the problem has spread within the DPRK itself. The Phoenix story claims that Chinese authorities are quietly cooperating with South Korea on the issue.
The US has been surprisingly cautious. The 2011 International Narcotics Strategy Report has a brief section on North Korea that suggests a decline over the last eight years in seizures when compared with the heyday of drug exports from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. The report even goes so far as to say that there is “no evidence to support a clear finding that DPRK state narco-trafficking has either stopped or is continuing.” But the Chinese are next door, and even if large-scale state trafficking may have fallen off, it appears that the business is alive and well. A feasible storyline is that production in Hamheung’s chemical plants or small-scale businesses is finding distribution through Chinese gangs.