How shamed wives, rogue chemists, and crooked doctors move 'Ice' in the Hermit Kingdom.
I interviewed my first member of the North Korean crystal meth trade in the spring of 2011. My subject was a woman still living inside the country who was desperate to leave. Her family background was somehow shameful, hurting her husband's military career, she told me through an intermediary. And while she heard everyone in bustling, wealthy South Korea was "happy," she lived in a "small city, a dusty city."
Deeply in debt, the woman said she would travel across the border near the city of Yanji, a bleak and oppressing Tijuana, to smuggle contraband to a Chinese trader. They would meet in the middle of the Yalu, the river which runs more than half the length of the 890-mile border between the two countries, frozen during the winter and often laxly patrolled, and she would pass off the products, like North Korean antiques, that she said she carried.
I asked her if she ever smuggled Ice Drug, as it's known in the region. "You're asking the wrong person, this is not my kind of world," she responded." Then she paused. "Do you want to buy it from me? Are there people around you who want to buy from me?"
Crystal meth is everywhere, but there are few locations better suited for the drug than North Korea. Produced from chemicals accessible even in a country as isolated as North Korea, it also suppresses appetite; that makes it ideal for a nation scarred by hunger. And there are many underemployed scientists -- North Korea has a surprisingly educated populace -- with the ability and desire to toil away at perfecting the formula in remote labs scattered across the country's mountainous interior.
Now, seemingly for the first time, there is confirmation of a plan to bring North Korean crystal meth to the United States. On Nov. 20, prosecutors in New York unsealed the indictment of five foreign nationals who were being charged with conspiracy to import roughly 40 pounds of crystal meth from North Korea to the United States. They had agreed to sell the meth, at nearly $30,000 a pound, to a buyer who was actually working for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Few details are known about the men or how they procured, or had planned to procure, their North Korean meth. This is common for a story on drug trafficking, but difficulties are compounded when it involves North Korea, the world's most opaque country: Details about usage and production of crystal meth there are impossible to confirm. That said, here's my best guess as to how and why the drug could move from a factory town in eastern North Korea where it may have originated, to the streets of New York.
Amphetamines were first synthesized in 1887; crystal meth, a smokable form, became popular in the United States in the mid-1990s. Later in that decade, reports of crystal meth began surfacing in North Korea -- after a famine tore through the country, killing approximately 5 percent of the country's 22 million people. Along with the breakdown of social order and institutions, out-of-work scientists, especially in the industrial city of Hamhung, started looking for new ways to earn money and feed their families. With access to chemicals, scientists could use shuttered factories to produce the drug.
Perhaps the scientists chose factories hidden among North Korea's mountainous countryside, or perhaps North Korean authorities did not know or care about the notoriously pungent smell that ‘cooking' crystal meth throws off. More likely, North Korean authorities participated in the trade; they had been smugglers of other contraband, including bootleg cigarettes and heroin.
Three North Koreans I spoke with said the drug started appearing on the domestic market in the late 1990s -- a period also cursed by devastating rains, which damaged the opium poppy crop. As thousands of North Koreans began moving across the country's porous border with China during the famine, looking for food and work, they discovered a market for crystal meth on the Chinese side.
A former bicycle smuggler, who defected in 2009, told me the "word on the street" was that when then North Korean president Kim Jong Il "found out about Ice in 2003, he started asking around who had started this, and discovered it was the chemists and learned people in Hamhung. Originally he was going to have them sent up," the trader said, either to concentration camps or remote villages up north, riddled with starvation. But because it would destroy the field of chemistry, Kim Jong Il forgave them. He decided Ice would be called a "strong antibiotic." With the government's blessing, the drug spread. (As I speak no Korean, most of the interviews were done through a translator, who prefers to remain anonymous. Most were conducted over the phone.)
North Korea's lack of options means this probably-apocryphal Kim anecdote isn't quite as outlandish as it sounds. The former bicycle smuggler spoke of a doctor administering Ice to a friend's sick father. "He took it and could speak well and move his hand again five minutes later. Because of this kind of effect, elderly people really took to this medicine." A South Korea-based NGO worker, who claims to have interviewed over 500 defectors, told me "People with chronic disease take it until they're addicted." Unlike heroin, crystal meth is mostly smoked or snorted, and a threadbare medical infrastructure means it's difficult for North Koreans to find needles, Hazel Smith, a North Korea expert at Cranfield University in Britain, told me.
Of course, crystal meth -- intensely addicting, with side effects ranging from blurred vision and insomnia to heart attacks and strokes -- is not a good medical choice. Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy, a book about ordinary lives in North Korea, recalls interviewing a 17-year-old whose parents gave her Ice for a headache. "It wasn't like they were corrupting her, but that she wasn't feeling well," Demick told me. "She said she didn't like it. She couldn't sleep."
Throughout the 2000s, the drug spread. "We started hearing rumors in 1998," says one defector living in South Korea. "But there was nothing on the scale there is now; it wasn't like people you knew were addicted." Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based broadcaster that pipes programs into the North, reported in 2010 that residents of some cities in the North "consume crystal meth like food." In 2011, a defector told me that every time she asks her mom, who was living in North Korea as of March 2011, about different alumni from the school, her mom replies how the girls are "ruining themselves" with Ice. "They lived well originally," she said. And then they end up "living like beggars."
The North Korean government apparently tried to crack down, but their efforts seem to have failed. The Daily NK, a news organization run by defectors that sends journalists into the country, reported in 2010 the story of a ‘Grandma Choi,' who went to meet a guard after her grandson was arrested on suspicion of drugs. The guard told her if she wanted to see her son freed, she must bring Ice as a bribe. Grandma Choi bought the guard a carton of ice cream. He became angry and said, "Your son's lived all he's going to live." A friend of her grandson explained the situation, and with his help she purchased two grams of Ice for a bribe and gained her son's freedom. The Daily NK also reported that in January of 2011, a 34-year-old Taekwondo teacher murdered someone in a drug deal gone wrong. "A public trial was conducted at the school gymnasium but the presiding judge was clearly a user. Our correspondent said that the judge wasn't speaking properly and kept grinding his molars, along with other indications that he was high. The public who witnessed this were sharing complaints with each other such as, ‘doesn't he have any sense of shame,' as they left the ‘court.'" The teacher received the death penalty. (Both these stories are impossible to confirm.)
Unsurprisingly, attempts to stop the spread of the drug appear to have failed. In Spring 2013, the journal North Korea Review published a study entitled "A New Face of North Korean Drug Use: Upsurge in Methamphetamine Abuse Across the Northern Areas of North Korea." Kim Seok-hyang, a co-author of the study, told the Wall Street Journal that "almost every adult" in those areas of the country "has experienced using Ice, and not just once." He estimated "at least 40 to 50 percent are seriously addicted."
The study found that meth production over the last few years has shifted away from government-owned factories to underground laboratories and "home kitchens." It's unclear if the five men attempting to smuggle meth into New York were able to produce the 99 percent purity drug they allegedly possessed from a home kitchen, or a state-run factory, or something else entirely. It's also possible that the North Korean meth -- which ABC News called "Breaking Bad" quality -- was the brainchild of a chemist from the desolated city of Hamhung. But much of the meth probably is used domestically, as a natural outlet for escape. One of the defectors I interviewed in 2011 for my reporting on crystal meth went on a business trip in 2001; when he returned to his hometown, he found that his wife had starved to death in his absence. "There's no hell like North Korea," he said.
Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images