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North Korea's casual relationship with crystal meth

Emigres say the drug is often used to treat colds and suppress appetite

  • Barbara Demick for Sydney Morning Herald, Yanji
  • China
  • January 29, 2014
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After the North Korean coal mine where she worked stopped paying salaries, Park Kyung-ok tried her hand at business.

Buttons and zippers, candy and dried squid, fabric, plastic tarpaulins, men's suits and cigarettes.

"I sold just about everything," said Ms Park, 44.

But it wasn't until she started hawking methamphetamine in 2007, she said, that she was able to earn a living.

Methamphetamine, known as orum, or "ice", is a rare commodity manufactured and sold in North Korea, where most factories sit idle, the equipment rusted or looted. The North Korean government once produced the drug, and others that are illicit in the West. Resourceful entrepreneurs have since set up their own small facilities, and evidence suggests that they are distributing the drug beyond the nation's borders.

Last month, five alleged drug smugglers — Chinese, British and Thai men among them — appeared in federal court in New York, extradited from Thailand in a plot to smuggle nearly 100 kilograms of crystal meth to the United States. They said that their product originated in North Korea.

A Harvard University researcher, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, has tracked 16 drug busts from 2008 to the present in China involving crystal meth from North Korea in quantities of up to 10 kilograms.

"Meth is a product you can make in bathtubs or trailers," Dr Greitens said. "You have a wide range of people involved in production and trafficking."

Ms Park, who tittered nervously when recounting her own audacity, said she got into the meth business fresh from a divorce, while struggling to support her children and a disabled sister in Hoeryong, a hardscrabble mining town of 130,000 on the Chinese border.

Ms Park used to travel to another North Korean city, Chongjin, to buy meth 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 Ms 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."

Full story: In North Korea, meth is offered as casually as a cup of tea

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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