Dealing Drugs: North Korean Narcotics Trafficking

By Green, Nick | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Dealing Drugs: North Korean Narcotics Trafficking


Green, Nick, Harvard International Review


The 1990s was not a good decade for North Korea, especially by economic standards. The period began with the collapse of the USSR, a primary trading partner, and ended with the loss of trade with China, causing North Korea's economic output to fall by more than 50 percent. In 1999, the country had one of the 25 lowest gross domestic products in the world. In the same decade, North Korea developed one of the most costly nuclear weapons programs and now may become the world's eighth nuclear power. If the international community wants to force North Korea to the bargaining table regarding its nuclear development, it must begin by cutting off the financial lifeline that makes Pyongyang's hard-line stance possible: its illegal narcotics industry, which netted the country as much as US$1 billion in 2001, more than the total combined revenue of US$650 million from all its legitimate exports.

Statements from defectors and a wide array of circumstantial evidence suggest the presence of a state-sponsored opium racket in North Korea since the 1970s. However, according to US Congressional testimony from North Korean defectors, it was not until the early 1990s that the severe economic depression forced North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to turn to trafficking as a means of supplanting, rather than simply supplementing, the country's legitimate economy. During a decade that saw as many as two million North Koreans die of famine, Kim ordered each of the country's numerous collective farms to turn over at least 25 acres of sustaining crops to poppy cultivation. The result, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service, was a surge in North Korea's opium output from three tons in 1992 to more than 50 tons in 1998.

During those years, Pyongyang expanded its drug production from opiates, such as heroin and morphine, to methamphetamines, more commonly known as "meth." In 1998, Thai police stopped a shipment of 2.5 tons of ephedrine, the operative ingredient in methamphetamine, en route to Pyongyang from India. Although North Korean officials claimed that the ephedrine was for cough medicine, a former North Korean diplomat noted that if used as claimed, the shipment "was enough to last North Korea 100 years." By the end of the 1990s, seizures of fully processed methamphetamines on the Japanese coast had skyrocketed. In one case in April 1997, over US$100 million worth of meth was found by Japanese officials aboard a North Korean freighter. …

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