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North Korea in grip of drugs epidemic, report claims

A report claims North Korea has a drug epidemic since China stepped up security on its border

Story highlights

  • Report claims North Korean drug producers are finding a ready market closer to home
  • North Korea Review says as many as two-thirds of North Koreans have used methamphetamines
  • Author says interviewees told her the border regions of North Korea are awash with drugs
  • Interviewees say methamphetamines used as a palliative in lieu of prescription drugs

North Korea's sanction-hit regime has long been accused of drug trafficking as a source of hard currency, but a new report claims drug producers are finding a ready market closer to home and that as many as two-thirds of North Koreans have used methamphetamines.

According to a report in the Spring 2013 edition of the journal North Korean Review, stricter China border controls have forced methamphetamine producers in the north to seek a local market for "ice" (known locally as "bingdu").

The report's co-author, Professor Kim Seok Hyang, of South Korea's Ewha Woman's University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that interviews with North Korean defectors suggested that the country is in the grip of an "ice" plague.

"Some informants are saying almost every adult in North Korea around the China-North Korea border are using methamphetamine," she said, adding that the drug was often used as a palliative in place of hard-to-obtain prescription medicine.

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"Actually, the hospital medical system (has) stopped for such a long time, so they need something to cure their pain ... physical pain," she said. "But once they get addicted to methamphetamine, there's no way for them to get out of it."

The North Korean regime releases no official figures on drug addiction and Professor Kim said the scale of the problem could not be statistically verified.

"But almost everybody in my interview is saying so, especially those who left North Korea after 2009," she told the ABC.

She said that interviewees told her the drug could be ordered casually and easily in restaurants, and that it had become difficult to control since it had become the drug of choice of high-ranking officials and the police.

While readily available, however, informants told her it was still expensive and did not indicate that North Korea had a greater level of disposable income for recreational drug use.

"Using methamphetamine does not mean they have enough money to dispose (of)," Professor Kim said. "They had to get it with all the money they have."

North Korea has been widely rumored to manufacture high-grade methamphetamine as a state policy for generating hard cash.

Estimates on how much North Korea generates through illegal activities such as arms trades, drug sales and counterfeiting are speculative, but reports say Pyongyang's shadowy "Room 39" directs illicit trade that generates millions for the nation's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.