Chinese, South Korean, and American news sources have reported the arrest of a group charged with smuggling methamphetamine (aka crystal meth) from North Korea into China. Dong-a Ilbo put the value of the haul at $60 million, an extraordinary figure, even if based on “street prices.” Crystal meth usage in Jilin province has exploded over the last 15 years, with locals claiming that most of the drugs originate in North Korea. Rundown Hamheung, once home to a thriving chemicals industry, and with it an abundance of trained workers, is reputedly the center of the North Korean industry, though the nature of the meth production process lends itself to dispersion of small scale facilities. The degree of authorized involvement by state officials is unclear.
North Korea has long been involved in the production and global distribution of illegal drugs, initially exporting opiates, and later synthetics such as crystal meth, as well as providing courier services for other producers. These activities involved both North Korean diplomats as well as cooperation with international criminal organizations. When Steph Haggard and I attempted to construct a balance of payments for North Korea, we estimated that in the middle of the last decade, North Korea probably earned somewhere on the order of $20-200 million on these activities. (The estimated range is so broad both because of uncertainty about the scale of these activities, but also because we were attempting to estimate North Korean earnings, not the final retail sales revenues. Drug sales involve extraordinary mark-ups as one moves down the distribution chain, estimates of the drug trade are easily inflated by applying street prices to upstream transactions.) Raphael Perl, while at CRS, authored a series of reports putting annual revenues at $71 million a year (broken down into $59 million from opiates and $12 million from amphetamines), while former Bush State Department official David Asher claimed a higher number of $100-200 million.
North Korean drug trafficking appeared to be on a downward trend. Research by both Sheena Chesnut and Benjamin Sovacool indicated that the frequency of drug busts peaked toward the end of the famine period and followed a declining trajectory thereafter. North Korea was dropped entirely from the list of major drug producing or trafficking countries in the 2007 US State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) still remaining off the list through 2011 and the 2005-2011 UN World Drug Reports make no mention whatsoever of North Korea in their detailed discussions of the international heroin and opium markets. The 2011 INCSR report and the 2007 UN Drug Report do both discuss the rising amount of amphetamine being trafficked into China as well as other Asian countries including Japan. They do not, however, name the government as a known participant in the amphetamine trafficking. The decline in seizures could reflect adoption of alternative means for bringing drugs into major export markets, including the use of Chinese triads, Russian Mafia, and Korean gangs as intermediaries as Asher and Perl have argued, but could also be due to increased surveillance and interdiction of North Korea’s activities. In this context the alleged scale of the bust in China is extraordinary, and if correct, signals a new and very dangerous development.
The North Koreans may be finding that it is very difficult to produce and export large quantities of drugs without blowback in terms of domestic consumption. RFA has reported that prominent officials have been swept up in recent busts, and as we previously noted, recent anti-drug campaigns, together with eyewitness discoveries of drug paraphernalia, suggest that drug use is on the rise in North Korea, though the scale is impossible to ascertain.