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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Breaking Bad: Lankov and Kim on North Korean Meth

by | September 16th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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Our favorite Russian analyst of North Korea, Andrei Lankov, has teamed up with Seok-Hyan Kim to produce an interesting piece in the North Korean Review on the growing North Korean meth problem; Andrei and Seok-Hyan got well-deserved face time for their piece at the WSJ and the Wilson Center. But the original deserves a read.

The analysis is based on 21 unstructured refugee interviews. This technique permits more in-depth analysis of issues than our questionnaire-based approach, but with somewhat greater risks with respect to what can be inferred. Respondents are overwhelmingly from North Hamgyong, but that is to be expected.

The respondents all date the upsurge of meth quite precisely to around 2005-6, as the cultivation of opium poppies was in decline; Minwoo Yun and Eunyoung Kim, two South Korean criminologists, come to similar conclusions in an earlier North Korea Review piece. The article notes some state production of meth for the armed forces, a stimulant to keep soldiers awake and amped up. The new meth labs by contrast are private, “mimicking—admittedly in a paradoxical way—the general transformation of North Korean society and economy.” Feed stock (ephedrine or phenylacetone) is imported from China, and Lankov and Kim report that Chinese gangs are involved in a two-way trade. But everything else is locally available to local chemists who have peeled away from their under-remunerated public sector jobs (think Breaking Bad’s Walter White).

The most newsworthy finding of the story is that this is no longer an export business; the domestic market has exploded. Drawing on an interesting theory of drug epidemics, authors and respondents hypothesize that drug use began among the elite and those involved in foreign trade but then spread down the social ladder, including to youth who were perhaps less immune to its highly-addictive properties. The social and political implications follow inexorably, as the narrative of the drug shifts to being more negative and authorities take note, and as addicts appear with serious habits that need to be fed.

Jason Strother, a reporter who has also covered the story, highlighted a different dimension that also came up in earlier domestic use of opiates: that the absence of medicines made narcotics an alternative for a variety of ailments.

What is the scope of the problem? As is often the case with coverage of such stories, the headline number—“as much as 50%  of the population” in one second-hand account—is not what Lankov and Kim say; they cite a handful of respondents from the North to the effect that the problem is widespread. But we would expect marketization to be associated with the selling of just about everything, so we find it plausible that drugs would enter the mix.

Lankov and Kim were surprised that the government has taken a relatively lax stance; maybe they are tolerating this like they are tolerating other aspects of the market, or maybe officials have their own motives. But this is clearly a story to watch; our other posts on drugs can be found here.