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North Korean authorities intensify drug checks on domestic travelers

A North Korean police car in Pyongyang in 2012. (Laika ac/Wikimedia Commons)
June 02, 2019

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

North Korean authorities, in an effort to crack down on the illicit drug trade within the country are intensifying security and surveillance on citizens’ routine travel – a renewed fervor against drug trafficking that critics say is encroaching on basic human rights.

Residents reportedly are complaining that excessive security and baggage checks by police along train routes is causing great inconvenience, sources in the country told RFA’s Korean Service.

A source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service that the crackdown began in the middle of this month.

“People going to the southern part of South Hamgyong province must [now] be prepared to undergo strict body searches and luggage inspections,” the source said.

“I went to Hamhung [North Korea’s second largest city and the capital of South Hamgyong] with my relatives. On my way back I was subjected to an unexpected security inspection,” the source said.

People traveling long distances within North Korea must present authorization to travel. A recent U.N. report highlighted this lack of freedom of movement as a violation of basic human rights. But the source’s rights were even further violated.

“I had a travel certificate and I showed my identification, but the train security officers said they were searching for people possessing drugs, so they just dragged me to an inspection room for a body search and luggage check,” said the source.

“I strongly complained because I felt it was unfair to have to go through an unexpected search,” the source said.

“But it was useless. They said they suspected that I was carrying drugs, so they collected my documents, then demanded I accept a body search,” the source added.

The officers first searched his luggage but were unable to find anything.

“When nothing came out of my luggage, the officers forced me to take off all my clothes. They suspect that women can hide drugs in their underwear, so they even make women take off their bras to check if they possess drugs or not,” the source said.

Travelers going to and from Hamhung are of particular concern because it is a known hub of crystal meth production. According to a Foreign Policyreport from 2013, following famines in the 1990s and the subsequent breakdown in social institutions, scientists who suddenly found themselves unemployed turned the city’s derelict laboratories into meth factories to make a living.

“Hamhung city has been pointed out as one of the most active drug manufacturing centers in the country,” the source said.

“They carry out excessive body searches on the grounds that they are trying to prevent the spread of drugs throughout the country,” the source said.

A second source, also from North Hamgyong, said that anyone arriving or going through Hamhung by train, bus or car should expect and be prepared for a thorough search and inspection.

“Frequent luggage and body searches for drugs is nothing new, but it’s never been as harsh as this,” the second source said.

“They think anyone on the move is a drug offender. Luggage inspections are not enough so they are checking us from head to toe,” said the second source.

“Drugs have always been a thing in Hamhung. I don’t know why they are suddenly cracking down on it,” the second source said.

While the officers say they are conducting the inspections to combat drug proliferation, residents suspect they may have other reasons to make travel inconvenient.

“Some people think that they just want to prevent people from traveling to other areas with their travel certificates, because many residents travel to other areas [of the country] to avoid being mobilized for farming or public construction projects,” the second source said.

While North Korean authorities at least claim to be concerned about the spread of drugs within the DPRK, they seemingly are willing to overlook meth smuggling between North Korea and China.

A recent RFA report highlighted the takedown by Chinese authorities of a North Korean state-sponsored drug ring operating in China’s Changbai Korean Autonomous county.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.