Midway through my Italian homework, I found myself in a dark corner of the Internet and it became clear that my old friend procrastination would take over. By the end of the night, I would end up understanding the craziest and unholiest matrimony since Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain: North Korea and crystal meth.
Admittedly, this is a very random subject and you’re probably wondering how I—or any sane person—could make the jump from indirect object pronouns to North Korea’s role in the international drug trade. Only one possible answer: the Internet. My generation often gets attacked for its overuse of the Internet and, to some extent, this is fair. But for me, it’s futile to resist the siren’s call of Wikipedia articles about random historical figures (sorry teachers), listicles of nefarious items to anonymously send to your enemies, and a subreddit about whatever insane thing “Florida Man” did in the news that day… (It’s always a Florida man.)
After 45 minutes or so of surfing through various articles, and article about Joseph Riley, a Florida man (of course) who attempted to run over his son for refusing to take a bath, led me to a philosophical Youtube video about Breaking Bad. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you know that Breaking Bad was a wildly popular television show about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who turns to making crystal methamphetamine (aka crystal meth), the powdered crystalline form of the stimulant methamphetamine.
Meth is so highly addictive that many users are hooked after the first use. There are horrific side effects such as irreversible skin and teeth damage, extreme weight loss, delusions of power, higher heart rate and blood pressure, and increased chance of strokes or irregular heartbeat that can, and likely will, kill users.
Shortly after finishing the video, Google (quite creepily) suggested an article about crystal meth use, but specifically in North Korea. At first, I laughed uncontrollably. How could a country that views 1984 as an instruction manual possibly have a problem with crystal meth? But after understanding the full scope of the situation, I learned that it’s a far worse public health crisis than I previously imagined when I opened the article.
The Lunar New Year, a long-celebrated Eastern Asian tradition, was celebrated on February 5 this year. Oftentimes, it is celebrated with fireworks, parades, and the exchange of gifts. And the hottest Lunar New Year gift in North Korea this year? Crystal meth, commonly known as “bingdu,” a transliteration from Mandarin meaning “ice drug.” Though crystal meth is technically illegal in North Korea, its presence is so commonplace that more than 30 percent of the population uses it, with one researcher calling it part of “daily life.”
The concept of crystal methamphetamine is not new to North Koreans. Methamphetamine reached the Korean Peninsula during the period of Japanese Imperial Occupation (1910-1945) and early defectors reported its use as a military ration in the post-WWII period. Not only has methamphetamine been used in North Korea since before the Kims started running the place, the government has taken an active role in its production for a long period of time.
According to Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri, the North Korean government began manufacturing methamphetamine as early as the 1970s as another source of revenue. But after the fall of various communist sponsors and the Soviet Union in 1991, hard times (relatively speaking) befell North Korea. A famine which killed over a million people ravaged the country, leaving many to resort to eating tree bark to survive. But rather than growing grain, the government under Kim Jong Il ordered farmers to grow poppies.
The regime established community farms and demanded upwards of 60 kilograms of raw opium to be produced in each harvest. The average North Korean farmer rightfully wondered why they were not growing food but instead forced to cultivate poppies. The government informed farmers that the crop, which would be used to produce opium, would sell for ten times as much as grain. Entering the new millenia, the famine ended and the government then decided to focus production on the more profitable methamphetamine.
Before mass producing methamphetamine, the North Koreans needed to acquire several ingredients. Meth is made primarily from pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in cold medications. In order to make meth, amphetamine (a stimulant commonly used to treat ADD) or methamphetamine (the more rapid, addictive, and lasting version of amphetamine) is extracted from pseudoephedrine. A motley crew of ingredients such as battery acid, paint thinner, and drain cleaner are all used in the extraction process.
Fumes from the synthesizing process are highly toxic and can easily kill producers, so wearing protective suits or masks is a necessity. These fumes are also highly explosive and each pound of meth creates up to five pounds of toxic waste. Dumping said waste adequately would require a hazmat team to dispose of it properly. It is needless to say that producing meth is a very dangerous business.
The prerequisite items for making meth are quite easy to find. Most can be bought on a trip to Walgreens or Walmart. So while there is little declassified information discussing how the North Korean government obtained such items, I doubt it was very hard to do so. If basically anyone can get them, I don’t see why a government couldn’t. There is also little information about the safety of government-sponsored meth labs and the removal of their toxic waste, but if what we know tells us anything, their operation was surprisingly professional.
Factories were built and the regime brought in expert chemists to teach workers how to make the purest and most potent crystals. This meth-education strategy was so highly effective that intelligence agencies have tested specific batches of North Korean crystal meth to be upwards of 99 percent pure.
Much of this meth was shipped over the border into China via train or other means or handed off to the Japanese Yakuza in daring ocean swaps, like something out of a Bond movie. But what else would you expect? Of course, when the craziest place on Earth sells the craziest product on Earth, they will do it in the craziest possible ways. The North Korean sale of methamphetamine became highly lucrative, and to this day 40 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade revenue is derived from “Bureau 39,” a literal North Korean government agency dedicated to overseeing the production of black market exports.
The Bureau’s efforts have been largely successful. North Korean crystal meth can be found across the globe. A particular stash of ultra-pure North Korean crystal meth hidden in the Philippines was sold to a DEA informant, leading to a stranger-than-fiction massive international investigation which found traces from West Africa to New York City. And while there are plenty of sanctions on North Korea to go around, thus far none have been issued as a result of illegal drug trafficking aside from a few unilateral rebukes.
Meth production sponsored by the regime declined around the mid-2000s, leaving a significant amount of meth experts unemployed. Shame. Always looking for a buck, many of them established smaller, yet still productive meth labs that sold locally. Because of their persistence, meth dependency continues in North Korea, a nation ripe for drug addiction.
The education paramount for keeping kids and at-risk individuals off of substances is just not present in the most isolated place on the globe, according to Australian political science professor Justin V. Hastings. North Korean crystal meth use has been on the rise in recent years, with some defectors reporting that up to 80 percent of the population in certain towns have used the drug. It has become particularly popular among the youth as a gift at graduations, birthdays, and holidays and has some parents even give it to their children to help them study. Incredibly, some wives in North Korean high society have even used it as a dieting measure. North Korea could truly become the final frontier of drug sales. But if such a dangerous epidemic of addiction is breaking out across the country, what is Pyongyang doing to stop it?
Nothing. Almost nothing.
The response of North Korea’s Orwellian government to this issue, or lack thereof, is not an Orwellian at all—it’s Huxleyan. In 1932, British author Aldous Huxley released the classic dystopian novel Brave New World. In it, a united world government that worships production is void of most history, modern religions, and non-approved authors, such as Shakespeare. The government reigns while its citizens are distracted by constant entertainment and soma, a drug distributed by the government. Soma makes people happy and devoid of pain, making them mindless. Those who do not conform to the society are shunned or even exiled.
John “the Savage,” a Native American largely unaware of the society governing the world, is paraded around London. Inspired by his mother’s death at the hands of soma and, in a greater sense, acting as an individual, John attempts to free lower-class citizens by destroying their soma rations. This causes mass panic and the police neutralized the public by spraying soma in gas form to calm them down.
The public’s dependency on soma is so effective that it single handedly allows for the continuity of the social order. For Kim Jong Un and the North Korean government, high crystal meth use presents an opportunity for the government to replicate Brave New World. Since 30 percent of the population is already hooked on crystal meth and the problem continues to spread, the North Korean people become even more pacified and easier to control. But how do we know crystal meth is the winning drug for the regime to keep the masses down? Unfortunately, there’s precedent.
In Nazi Germany, crystal meth was weaponized. After testing on college students, the Temmler pharmaceutical company introduced “Pervitin” in 1938. Pervitin, “a magical pill,” (tabulated form of methamphetamine) acted as both anti-depressant and an alertness medication. For a time, it was available over the counter. It made way for soldiers in the Wehrmacht to avoid resting while marching and stay awake for days at a time. More than 35 million tablets made it to the frontlines, addicting countless troops. Many German soldiers were so hooked that they wrote home begging their families to smuggle them more Pervitin. Even Hitler himself was addicted (to that among other things, including cocaine).
Crystal meth has already been used by regimes as a wider scheme to control its people. While there has been no evidence proving the North Korean government has directly sold crystal meth to its people, the leadership’s apathy toward the growing problem makes them complicit. Kim Jong Un’s grand strategy has been to clasp onto power as long as possible, and if that means his subjects are all addicted to crystal meth, then so be it.
However, Kim is playing a dangerous game. If the population gets too addicted, a modern Opium War situation could arise. The Opium Wars, a conflict between Victorian Britain and Qing China, began after Britain (after being denied heightened trade access to China) dumped so much Indian opium into China that almost the entire Chinese population became addicted and unproductive. Britain won and forced the Chinese to open up five ports of entry.
If crystal meth hooks too many North Koreans it could destroy the productivity of the North Korean economy. In the Opium Wars, a foreign government intended to use a drug to destroy another nation’s economy. But in North Korea, the government is domestically engineering an addiction that could undo their own economy and central government. Basically, if this problem gets too out of hand, Kim Jong Un might reverse-Opium War himself. What fascinating times we live in.
With crystal meth as a North Korean norm, they move into a Brave New World of their own. Will the North Korean people continue to consume something so dangerous? Will they figure out on their own that crystal meth is bad for them, despite what the government may say or not say? Will the government’s strategy of looking the other way allow it to further solidify its control as Huxley predicted possible? Will it backfire? It’s all way too soon to say. Other than the unlikely event that the government cracks down on crystal meth, I have literally no idea how this problem will be solved in the foreseeable future.
Crystal meth has destroyed so many lower income communities in the United States. And as someone who has lived in a less-than-wealthy Texas town where meth is an epidemic in the community, I feel uniquely qualified to say that I understand this issue. Having seen lives destroyed from methamphetamine, I feel pity for the North Korean people. The longer the government prolongs meth use in North Korea, the greater suffering its already miserable people will have to endure. While contemplating this, I realize that it’s been hours, I still haven’t completed my Italian homework, and it’s one in the morning so I need to get a move on.
But when I see the Netflix app icon on my homescreen, I’m reminded that I haven’t seen that Ted Bundy series yet…
Categories: Foreign Affairs