North Korea Drugs Trade

The North Korean government’s attitude towards drug trade has changed drastically in the last few decades. Although drug production and trafficking in North Korea originated from government attempts to earn foreign currency, since the drug epidemic of the mid 2000s, there has been a shift to close down official production of methamphetamine and border patrol with China have tightened in recent years.[1] Nevertheless, Yun Minwoo and Eunyoung Kim have brought up how the North Korean state has unintentionally propagated the skills and ideology for private drug production, specifically through the roles of various government officials and businessmen.[2] Though the policies of the North Korean government have led to changes in patterns of drug usage and production, specific issues must be targeted by the North Korean government for there to be an end to drug trade.


The cause of the demand for drugs is a central issue which sustains the North Korean drug industry. Participants of drug use and production have become involved through their societal roles.[3] On one hand, reports on the demand for drug production address users from elite classes, such as the wives of Party cadres, who have been reported to use methamphetamine for recreational purposes and dieting.[4] Ponghwajo, an unofficial group of young North Korean elites involved in illicit activities, have also been attributed to engaging in drug trafficking.[5] Nevertheless, the trends for drug use in North Korea at large reflect the weakness of its healthcare system, specifically due to the necessity of having important connections to gain access to medicine and a lack of education on the dangers of drugs, as many are lead to believe that they receive healing properties for their illnesses.[6]



Photos: Pong Su Incident 2003 (Source: Royal Australian Air Force)


Andrei Lankov and Seok-hyang Kim addressed the necessity of international aid in order to resolve this issue.[7] Barriers to this must be considered, such as North Korean authorities’ unwillingness to cooperate and the spread of misinformation internationally of the current role of state sponsored drug manufacturing and trafficking. Many international sources report that state sponsored drug trade has largely declined in recent years while primary sources in Chinese share that it has remained a method to generate funds under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.[8] As the North Korean drug trade has come to light on an international scale in recent years and there are now numerous reports and studies on the phenomenon, our basis for judgment on the current status of the North Korean government should be questioned.


Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and a rocket launch, the United Nations Security Council has imposed new sanctions on North Korea. The new sanctions aim to enforce toughened measures, including inspections of all cargo entering and exiting from North Korea. For China, North Korea’s drug trade has become an increasingly more significant issue to combat. According to political science Stephan Blancke, an expert on organized crime, “The Chinese government and agencies are serious because there is a growing number of drug addicted people in China and China is becoming more and more a global player with international duties.”[9] There is evidence of China’s efforts, as Blancke brings up, “Chinese police is cooperating … with Interpol in combating drug crime.”[10] Yet reports from Dandong, where 70% of trade between China and North Korea is estimated to take place, suggest that tightened regulations seem to have had little effect on overall trade.[11] Blancke suggests, “The more sanctions and regulations you have the more you find ‘illegal’ ways to circumvent them.” [12] There is reason to doubt whether recent sanctions would have a significant impact on drug manufacturers. North Korean authorities have issued official permits for overseas business trips and private travel certificates to manufacturers in the North Korean drug trade, which has largely eliminated barriers for their activities in China.[13]


Photo: South China Morning - East Asia


Although more rigorous measures have been enforced in the conditions for North Korean drug trafficking today, it is necessary to be critical of the efficiency of current sanctions and regulations. While the exact role of the North Korean government in the drug trade in recent years remains unclear, due to limited available sources, there is reason to be suspicious of the lack of further involvement in preventing the issue. North Korea must be encouraged to be more active in drug manufacturing and trafficking within its own borders, taking into account the influence of societal roles and disparities in creating patterns for drug production and usage.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

[1] Minwoo Yun and Eunyoung Kim, “Evolution of North Korean Drug Trafficking: State Control to Private Participation,” North Korean Review Vol. 6, No. 2 (2010).

[2] Minwoo Yun and Eunyoung Kim, “Evolution of North Korean Drug Trafficking: State Control to Private Participation,” North Korean Review Vol. 6, No. 2 (2010).

[3] Minwoo Yun and Eunyoung Kim, “Evolution of North Korean Drug Trafficking: State Control to Private Participation,” North Korean Review Vol. 6, No. 2 (2010).

[4] Kang, M. (June 25 2015). Drug diet fad emerges among elite. Retrieved December 12, 2015, from http://www.dailynk.com/english/m/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=13381

[5] Gertz, B. (May 24 2010). North Korea elite linked to crime. Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/may/24/north-korea-elite-linked-to-crime/?page=all

[6] Andrei Lankov and Seok-hyang Kim, “A New Face of North Korean Drug Use: Upsurge in Methamphetamine Abuse Across the Northern Areas of North Korea,” North Korean Review Vol. 9, No. 1 (2013).

[7] Andrei Lankov and Seok-hyang Kim, “A New Face of North Korean Drug Use: Upsurge in Methamphetamine Abuse Across the Northern Areas of North Korea,” North Korean Review Vol. 9, No. 1 (2013).

[8] Peng Wang and Stephen Blancke, “Mafia State: The Evolving Threat of North Korean Narcotics Trafficking,” RUSI Journal Vol. 159, No. 5 (2014).

[9] Stephan Blancke, email interview by Hyunju Ban, June 5 2016 (http://stephan.blancke.de/)

[10] Stephan Blancke, email interview

[11]Unknown. (March 12 2016). What Sanctions? Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://www.economist.com/news/china/21694578-border-between-china-and-north-korea-it-business-usual-what-sanctions

[12] Stephan Blancke, email interview

[13] Boliek, B. (February 6 2016). North Korea Drug Problem Spans Border with China. Retrieved May 20, 2016, from http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/north-korea-drug-problem-spans-border-with-china-02032016160114.html

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