About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Annyeonghaseyo all, and hwanyeonghamnida to the latest installment of Ask a North Korean — the feature where NK News readers pose their questions to our North Korean defector writers.
This week’s question comes from Antoni in Warsaw, who asked us about drug dealing, possession, and the consequences in North Korea if one is caught.
Tae-il has touched on drugs in North Korea before, but today discusses the subject in much more depth, including how North Korean drug culture has evolved over time and which strata of society are using which narcotics.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Drug-related crimes are prevalent in North Korea.
The collapse of communist states in the early 1990s struck the country hard. The economy collapsed and the livelihoods of ordinary people fell apart.
Amid all this, some people who had lost hope in reality began using drugs for a little peace of mind in their presumably short time left on this earth.
They initially ate the opium, then moving on to injecting it into their backsides, and eventually just straight into their blood vessels.
Dosages range from 1-9 times a day and 0.1-0.5g per injection. One gram of opium costs about 25 RMB.
Opium has long been cultivated, sold, and used in North Korea. The average household usually possesses approximately 10g for emergency use since it is believed to be good for flu, diarrhea, colitis, and brain hemorrhages.
Some smart people planted and harvested opium early on in their private residences or deep in the mountains because neither ordinary farming nor running a business provided enough to make a living.
“Law enforcement officers, party members, and other elites use drugs and are involved in drug sales”
It was after 1995, when a certain incident sparked widespread curiosity and interest, that individuals began planting and cultivating opium.
Back then, the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party proposed the idea of growing drugs to Kim Jong Il as a means of creating revenue for the Party.
Once they received approval, they proceeded to select a quiet location with good soil in each province and started to cultivate opium.
In Ryanggang, my province, Boseo-ri in Samjiyon county was chosen. Dozens of workgroups from each village were mobilized to plant and tend the opium. My sister was living in Boseo-ri at the time so I could see them working in person.
After the fall harvest, my family went to the field to collect the heads of the plants in a gunny sack and squeezed the oil out of them. They were said to produce more oil than beans or sesame. It tasted a bit bitter but I heard that it had good medicinal effects.
One day, security guards under armed escort were transporting harvested opium in boxes to Pyongyang. However, as the truck was turning a corner in Bocheon county, dozens of cases of opium fell from the truck and spilled out onto the road.
All the relevant authorities were mobilized to search for the lost opium, but some of it was never found.
That incident sparked off the opium business and gave birth to opium users and sellers. This is also when people came to realize that opium was profitable.
Going into 2005, opium was upgraded to bingdu (methamphetamine). Bingdu was originally produced and sold in Hamhung, where there’s a cluster of biotechnology research organizations, and Susan-ri in Sangwon county, Pyongyang.
Bingdu is a lot more expensive than opium and has been the most used and sold drug in North Korea over the last 15 years. Cocaine, which I have not seen in person, is known to be the most expensive drug and is used by high cadres and the wealthy.
Denda (덴다, heroin), allegedly used by powerful cadres when they have sex in an improper relationship, is sold at 2 dollars per pill.
The number of drug-related crimes is very high. I reckon that 80-90% of defectors who have fled the country in the past 15 years are likely to have come into contact with illicit drugs.
North Korea has strict laws on drug manufacture, use, and sale. In the 13 reformatories from across the country, 20-30 percent of inmates have committed drug-related crimes.
The government does crack down on drug crime and severe cases result in life imprisonment or execution by firing squad.
Regardless, drug crimes keep happening because law enforcement officers, party members, and other elites use drugs and are involved in drug sales.
The story of Lee Yong Su is a case in point. He came to Hyesan in 2008, with the referral of a Hamhung fertilizer complex’s head of security, to sell 3kg of bingdu.
Lee was caught, arrested, and supposed to serve 15 years in prison — however, his term was reduced to three years, and he was to serve at the Hamhung reformatory, near his hometown, and not where he was originally assigned at the Gaecheon reformatory.
The prosecutor in charge of his case was Cheon Sang Ho, a friend of Lee Gwang Nam, director of political division at the state security department of the Heungnam city and a relative of Lee Yong Su.
Lee Yong Su paid a bribe upon admission to the reformatory and was soon released on bail for health reasons.
What happened was that Cheon Sang Ho and another prosecutor relevant to the case agreed to reduce Lee Yong Su’s prison term to three years in return for 3kg of bingdu, split between the two of them, from his elder brother-in-law, Lee Gwang Nam.
The price of bingdu was $8,000 per kilogram in Hamhung, its place of production, and $13,000 in Hyesan. Once smuggled out to China the price goes up to $18,000 and jumps to $100,000-200,000 in South East Asia, Japan, and South Korea.
In other words, the bribe that the two prosecutors received was worth roughly $20,000 per person if they traded their bingdu in Hyesan.
“Drugs are a means of leisure for the privileged and a means of escape for the impoverished”
This was all just a tiny incident 12 years ago. Drug-related crimes are even more ingrained in North Korean culture nowadays.
People used to invite one another out for drinks, but these days they suggest having a ‘bang (방)’ or ‘koh (코)’ when they bump into a friend.
Bang or koh refers to a way of counting how many hits of bingdu you snort. The instruments for this are sold brazenly at the government-run store in Hamhung.
When no aids are available, you roll up a 100 RMB bill and put it in your nostrils. Seasoned drug users take 10-15 koh per time. 5 koh can keep entry-level users stimulated for 24 hours, but long-time users increase this dose several times.
The majority of the drug dealers, the wealthiest group in North Korean society, do business with the support and protection of authorities in the Party, the ministry of state security, and prosecutors.
Drugs are a means of leisure for the privileged and a means of escape for the impoverished. Many are driving themselves into ruin for a momentary escape from their depressing reality.
Thankfully, those North Korean defectors who had once said that they would never be able to beat the drugs have completely abandoned them and are now living diligent lives. Their once enfeebled bodies have now recovered.
There are times when North Koreans use drugs not to help them live but to help them die.
Most defectors bring along drugs with them as a must-have for their long and dreadful escape. Some abandon their drugs once they have safely crossed the DPRK-China border and others wait until they cross the Mekong River.
Many defectors also carry ‘happy medicine,’ a poisonous pill made of potassium cyanide that kills immediately when swallowed.
Although they’re on a journey for survival and freedom, they know that killing themselves is better than getting caught and then most likely facing an excruciating death.
Happy medicine is available at North Korean markets.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio