A report by The New York Times has found the use of crystal methamphetamine is so widespread in North Korea that people consume it as nonchalantly as cigarettes or beer.
Introduced to North Korea in the early 20th century during the Japanese colonial period, crystal meth was first produced and commercialised by the government during the 1990s when cash reserves were low.
According to a 2014 study by University of Missouri political scientist Sheena Chestnut Greitens, the drug was smuggled across the northern border into China or distributed by sea to criminal organisations like the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Triads.
Around the mid-2000s, government meth production dwindled and left a void in demand, leaving a whole bunch of local meth producers with nothing to do. This lead to small-scale labs popping all over the country and competing to cover the needs of the local market.
Although meth – known as “pingdu” in North Korea – is illegal and the government maintains an anti-drug facade, use of the drug is an open secret among the population, to such a point that people snort or inject the powerful stimulant as casually as smoking a cigarette and even use it as a gift for special occasions.
To make matters worse, the country’s languid health system, which suffers under shortages of medical supplies and treatments, pushes many people to take opiates and other stimulants as medicinal alternatives.
Andrei Lankov, who directs the news site NK News, told The New York Times, “Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug, something like Red Bull, amplified.”
Lankov said stories of pingdu being given as special gifts arose often during interviews he conducted with defectors for a study on North Korean drug use in 2013. He did add that these references were becoming less common in recent years, suggesting a possible decline.
In 2016, Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, interviewed North Korean defectors as part of a separate study and also encountered stories of crystal meth being a popular gift for birthdays, graduations and important holidays like the Lunar New Year.
Justin Hastings, a political scientist at the University of Sydney who has studied North Korean drug trafficking networks, said, “Over time, this has resulted in a culture where people are willing to take risks to make money, and official state prohibition has little meaning.”