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North Koreans give crystal meth as lunar new year gifts

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un enjoys a cigarette. (Driver Photographer/Flickr)
February 17, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Many North Koreans are spreading holiday cheer this year by giving each other illicit drugs as gifts, sources in the sanctions-hit reclusive nation say.

Known in the West as crystal meth and going by the street name “ice” in North Korea, the drug has gained popularity, and caused many problems in recent years.

During the lunar new year holiday, one of the two most important holidays on the Korean peninsula, Koreans visit their family members bearing gifts. In South Korea the gifts might be cans of spam, fruit or other edible items that can be shared. Meanwhile, young North Koreans instead share meth and other drugs, causing great concern for North Korean authorities.

“Ice has become a best-selling holiday gift item,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

“Drug dealers don’t have enough supply for their buyers,” the source said.

“The bigger problem is that most of the buyers are young people, even those still in middle school,” the source said.

“In the past, ice users would try to be discreet, not wanting others to know that they were buying, but these days nobody seems to care,” said the source.

“They usually buy ice to snort together during holidays,” said the source, adding, “They want to forget their harsh reality and enjoy themselves.”

“Since the mid-2000s, drugs have become commonplace and the people now think that the holidays are not a joyful time if there are no drugs for them to enjoy,” said the source.

“Social stigmas surrounding drug use [have disappeared], so people now feel that something big is missing if they don’t have ice or opium prepared as a holiday gift,” the source said.

“People usually carefully check the price of products prior to purchase, but they don’t think twice about splurging for meth during the holiday season. [Most people] are close to becoming addicts,” said the source.

Not just a city problem

Another source, from neighboring South Hamgyong province, said that drug use is widespread and not limited to the big cities.

“An increasing number of people are becoming addicted, and ice is sold even in rural and remote areas,” said the source.

“People like ice better than opium because ice costs less and it is stronger,” the source said.

“Ice makers and dealers can be punished with up to the death penalty if they get caught, but they can make a lot of money fast,” said the source, adding, ”There are so many people looking for drugs, so nothing is going to stop [the drug trade].”

The North Korean methamphetamine trade has made headlines recently as the drug has gained popularity.

In August 2016, RFA discovered that construction managers in the capital Pyongyang were supplying ice to workers in hopes of completing showcase projects faster.

Realizing that rampant methamphetamine use among young people could lead to massive social problems, North Korean authorities have tried to stop students and young adults from using the drug, even going as far as interrogating elementary school students.

As efforts to combat the widespread manufacture of ice in North Korea have stepped up though, some North Koreans have set up shop in China and have begun smuggling it over the border.

A few of these entrepreneurs have even realized the market potential for the drug within China itself, foregoing smuggling altogether.