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North Koreans put out of work by COVID-19 resort to drug trafficking

Soldiers from the Korean People's Army look south while on duty in the Joint Security Area. February 16, 2008. (Edward N. Johnson/U.S. Army)
March 23, 2020

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

North Korean restrictions on business activities and social movement to prevent the spread of coronavirus have driven already struggling traders to take up meth trafficking, sources in the isolated country told RFA.

A resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday that government bans on business activities are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

“They could barely keep their heads above water when they could do business,” said the source.

“Now the number of people going into drug trafficking is increasing,” the source said.

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The source said that North Korea’s rumor mill was in full swing, with drug sellers touting their wares as medicine against the virus.

“Residents have always believed ice to be a cure-all drug,” said the source, referring to methamphetamine by its local street name in North Korea, which has a history with the drug.

“Since the coronavirus outbreak, people are saying that it can prevent or even cure coronavirus, but nobody knows where this rumor originated,” the source said.

“The people who make the drugs are adding fuel to the rumors, misleading people into believing ice is particularly potent on coronavirus. People believe it is true, because fevers, coughs and body aches will all temporarily disappear if a user inhales ice,” the source said.

The source said that underground meth labs are much more common in North Korea than they were in the past. North Korea’s government once sponsored meth manufacturing as a means to generate foreign cash by selling the drug abroad. But once the government stopped doing this in the early 2000s, chemists who had been employed to make the drugs simply took their operations underground.

“Now that ice manufacturing methods are widely known among ordinary people, it is possible to make it anywhere with the right materials and equipment,” the source said.

“Residents who are no longer able to run businesses because of the coronavirus crisis can make even more profit in a single transaction than they would doing their regular business,” said the source.

“They can get 120 Chinese yuan (U.S. $16.92) per gram of ice, but with many residents not having cash to spare, they will sell it in smaller quantities, like a half, third or fifth of a gram.”

In the United States, a gram of meth costs about $80 on average according to the website Crystal Meth Addiction.org.

The source said that with so many in the meth business these days the drug’s availability is at an all time high.

“There used to be very few meth houses selling ice in one neighborhood, but there are so many these days so it’s possible to get a fix at anytime.”

Another North Hamgyong resident told RFA that coronavirus has also had implications for the international meth trade.

“Large-scale smugglers sell lots of meth in China with Chinese partners and are in collusion with border guards,” the second source said.

“The authorities are aware of this and are trying to arrest them when it happens, but they are having trouble finding out who is doing it because they are so sneaky,” the second source added.

“Until now, drug trafficking has been on the decline because of the watchful eye of the authorities, but with the outbreak of the epidemic, people are more willing to take the risk by trafficking drugs because they can’t otherwise make ends meet when their businesses have been shut down,” said the source.

“Drug smuggling will just increase more if these economic difficulties persist.”