Breaking Bad in North Korea: History of North Korea's State-Sponsored Narcotrafficking and Recent Developments
By Jong-Min Lee
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations & Research
On May 19, 2023, the South Korean military discovered the body of a deceased North Korean escapee in its waters. According to the South Korean authorities, roughly 70g of methamphetamine was found on the individual’s leg. Considering North Korea’s past actions and their impact on nearby countries, the concerns pertaining to methamphetamine from North Korea are nothing new for South Korea. This piece examines the past and present of narcotrafficking in relation to North Korea, with a focus on China's northeastern provinces that have been most affected by this issue.
History of North Korea’s State-led Narcotrafficking
According to testimonies by high-ranking defectors, including Thae Yong-ho (former deputy ambassador to the UK) and Hwang Jang-yeop (former Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly), the North Korean regime started its narcotic-trafficking operations under Kim Jong-il’s guidance between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. This state-sponsored narcotrafficking started as an effort to prove Kim Jong-il’s political competency to his father, Kim Il-sung, by obtaining much-needed foreign currency for the regime.
However, this state-sponsored narcotrafficking experienced drawbacks during the 1970s. These operations caused significant diplomatic problems. Numerous North Korean diplomats were implicated for their involvement. In 1976 alone, North Korean diplomats were expelled and designated persona non grata from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden for trafficking hashish. Subsequently, North Korea started to work with criminal organizations in the 1980s to mitigate diplomatic complications.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea faced significant economic difficulties and experienced a famine in the mid- to late-1990s. The North Korean regime called the famine the “Arduous March.” Professor Sandra Fahy states that “Marching through Suffering” is a more faithful translation. It connotes valiantly struggling through the dire conditions of the famine, which North Korea blamed on the United States. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of Soviet subsidies, Kim Il-sung expanded the regime’s narcotrafficking operations. In 1992, under Kim Il-sung’s orders, the cultivation of heroin was promoted on a national scale under the name of “White Bellflower Movement,” along with the production of methamphetamine, to secure foreign currency.
During the famine, Kim Jong-il further encouraged North Korea’s illicit operations to overcome economic challenges. In 1996, there was a major shift in North Korea’s narcotics production. Severe floods and the famine damaged its poppy fields and created difficulties for heroin production. The regime thus turned to methamphetamine as an alternative.
Under orders from Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s diplomatic service, security apparatus, and numerous state agencies became involved in illicit activities. For example, according to Hwang Jang-Yeop, North Korean naval vessels were routinely involved in narcotrafficking to Southeast Asia until the mid-1990s. Hwang also testified in 1997 that Nanam Pharmaceutical plant managed heroin, Suncheon Pharmaceutical plant managed morphine, and Pyongyang Pharmaceutical plant managed meth production, showing deep and widespread state involvement in drug production. In the case of heroin, it has been alleged that the forced labor of political prisoners was used to cultivate poppies. Satellite images have shown large poppy plantations near the Yodok political prison camp, and testimonies from refugees attest to the use of forced labor in heroin production.
The North Korean regime was also deeply involved in the production of crystal meth. The use of government-sanctioned pharmaceutical plants guarantees a high level of purity for the end products. It has been alleged that the regime enhanced its narco-products by recruiting professional methamphetamine producers from South Korea in the early 1990s. Chinese court dockets indicate that both South Korean and Chinese transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have been involved in North Korea-related narcotrafficking.
Extensive state involvement in narco-production and trafficking has increased the commercial value of North Korean products in the global narco-market. These narcotics have been sold through North Korea’s diplomatic outposts and restaurants, and also with the cooperation of various TCOs, including the Yakuza, the Russian Mafia, and the Triads. It has been alleged that North Korea partnered with these organizations to cover its tracks.
Over time, this state-sponsored narcotrafficking project has resulted in the proliferation of professional narco-producers across the country. The regime has lost control over narcotics production, as these individuals are no longer constrained by the state. Drug-related crimes in North Korea have grown rampant despite the enactment of legislation on narco-control in 2004 and 2013. Recent testimonies from refugees attest to an upsurge in public executions and criminal punishment for narcotics-related offenses.
North Korean meth products have also been found in the Philippines, Australia, China, and South Korea. They even came close to entering the United States in 2013. China has been a major point of transit for North Korean narcotics. The scale of North Korea’s narco-production and trafficking cannot be verified, mainly due to China’s unwillingness to release detailed information that could be politically sensitive. In the absence of official documentation, the main source of information on the subject has been the testimonies of North Korean refugees.
Impact of North Korean Narcotics on the People’s Republic of China
It has been widely acknowledged that North Korea’s narcotrafficking has most heavily impacted Chinese cities near the Sino-North Korean border. Although aggregated data on North Korean narcotics is unavailable, its existence and impact can be inferred from Chinese and South Korean sources. North Korean crystal meth was sold for roughly 1,200 RMB per gram in northeast China in 2010, and the estimated annual North Korean production of crystal meth and other synthetic drugs is around 3,000 kg. Meanwhile, South Korean sources estimate that Bureau 39, which is tasked with raising foreign currency for the North Korean regime, has been making roughly $100-200 million annually through narcotrafficking operations.
The high purity of North Korea’s crystal meth has made it increasingly competitive in the Chinese drug market. Police officers in northeast China have stated that North Korean crystal meth has been sold at a higher price than that from southern China, where illicit substances are obtained from the “Golden Triangle” (Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar). In contrast to crystal meth from southern China, which was sold at approximately 1g/1200 RMB (equivalent to $186), the starting price of North Korean crystal meth was approximately 1g/1500 RMB (equivalent to $232). Even though exact information is not publicly available, narcotrafficking operations are likely to have been a major source of revenue for the North Korean regime.
Based on Chinese court cases, relevant statistics, and statements from senior Chinese Ministry of Public Safety (MPS) officials, North Korea’s narcotrafficking operations caused significant security challenges for the Chinese government and resulted in corruption among border security personnel. In 2011, Liu Yuejin, Vice Commissioner of the National Narcotics Control Commission, commented:
The number of people using methamphetamine in Northeast China has increased significantly. The abuse situation in Northeast China is prominent, and the registered synthetic drug abusers in the three Northeastern provinces have accounted for more than 72% of all drug users. To the surprise of the Chinese people, the three Eastern provinces, which are neither coastal nor drug-producing, have become the hardest hit areas. Russia and South Korea, which border the three Eastern provinces, are importers of drugs, are not important sources of exports, and only North Korea has grown to be the manufacturer of drugs on a large scale since the 1990s. There is also plenty of evidence that drugs from North Korea, especially methamphetamine, are rampant in the three Northeastern provinces.
Northeast China has been hit the hardest by drug problems relative to other regions of the country. According to statistics from the Yanji municipal government in 2009, the number of narcotic offenders related to crystal meth in the city in 1995 was only 44, but the number had increased to 2,090 over a decade. Meanwhile, the Shenyang City Prosecution Service stated that 73% of all narcotraffickers prosecuted between 2009 and 2011 were foreign nationals. These “foreign” nationals are allegedly North Koreans. Furthermore, from January to May 2015, the Jilin provincial government seized and incinerated roughly 170 kg of narcotics.
When the Regional Deputy Director of Ministry of Public Safety and the Commander of the Byeonbang (Border Area) Reconnaissance Battalion in Donggang City were indicted in 2015 for colluding with North Koreans, Chinese authorities seized approximately 50 kg of North Korean crystal meth during the arrest. The opaqueness of narcotrafficking from North Korea also presents a significant challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who declared a war on drugs in 2014. In 2020, Xi re-emphasized the importance of China’s counter-narcotic efforts. China’s 2019 National Drugs Situation Report identified 0.16% of its population (2.148 million) as drug users. This poses a significant challenge for Xi, and China has taken steps to address the problem over the past decade.
Despite the severity of this issue, information about North Korea’s narcotrafficking in China has not been publicized through foreign media outlets since 2018, when there was a thaw in Sino-North Korean relations with multiple summit meetings between Xi and Kim. Since then, Sino-North Korean relations have been reinforced as Sino-U.S. relations have deteriorated. Reports from the Liaoning Daily and statistics from the Intermediate People’s Court of Shenyang in 2020 note that the number of narcotics-related offenses had declined by 61.11% since 2016. However, considering that North Korea enforced strong border control measures in response to COVID-19, this decline may reflect North Korea’s extreme quarantine measures rather than a fundamental shift in policy.
North Korean narcotrafficking can also be examined through information from South Korean sources. In 2012, Representative Yoon Sang-hyun of the National Assembly stated that more than half of the narcotics entering South Korea originated from North Korea. The problem has only grown in recent years. The number of maritime narcotrafficking interdictions by South Korea’s Coast Guard increased from 56 in 2016 to 962 in 2022. According to figures from the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, the amount of confiscated heroin increased from 0.74g in the first half of 2020 to 1,210.26g in the first half of 2021, while the amount of seized methamphetamine jumped from 28,114.19g in the first half of 2020 to 93,065g in the first half of 2021. These figures do not provide specific information about narcotrafficking originating from North Korea. However, given the past frequency of indictments and announcements by South Korean authorities implicating North Korea in narcotrafficking incidents, it is plausible that North Korea is involved in these developments.
North Korea’s Narcotrafficking: Recent Developments
Kim Jong-un has demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with China on drug-related issues. In particular, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) passed a new counter-narcotics law in July 2021. Compared to the 2004 and 2013 amendments that only included clauses related to the punishment of the production and trafficking of narcotics, this new law has a special provision that specifically refers to the prevention of narcotics usage and related crimes. Considering the statements and relevant data from Chinese officials in the three northeastern provinces and from North Korean refugees, however, the new law is unlikely to have a meaningful impact.
The severity of narcotics usage among North Koreans may be attributed to state-sponsored narcotics production and distribution, a dilapidated healthcare system, food insecurity, and the rise in demand and distribution of narcotics throughout North Korea and its vicinity. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the famine in the 1990s devastated North Korea’s economy, public distribution system, and public health infrastructure. More North Koreans turned to illicit substances to evade hunger, illness, and pain.
The severity of the issue is indicated by the testimony of a former North Korean counternarcotics prosecutor, who stated in a 2021 article that roughly 30 percent of the North Korean population has abused illicit substances. The problem is not solely restricted to adults. This former prosecutor testified that she had even witnessed seven-year-olds abusing narcotics. A study by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in 2018 reached similar conclusions regarding the percentage of the population affected by drug abuse. The gravity of the problem has also been well described in testimony from Chinese law enforcement. Yanbian police officers stated in a 2014 study that most North Korean households stored at least 2 grams of narcotics as first-aid medicine.
To stabilize the region and to counter the spread of narcotics in northeast China, Chinese authorities initiated a cooperative investigation with South Korean authorities in 2011. South Korea and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Enforcement of Criminal Laws for transnational crimes. However, compared to China's existing transnational counter-narcotic measures with ASEAN countries—ASEAN and China Cooperative Operations in Response to Dangerous Drugs (ACCORD)—Sino-South Korean cooperation on transnational crimes is not as well structured. Chinese authorities have often demonstrated a lack of cooperation in terms of the South Korean authorities’ requests for extradition and investigations of transnational crimes. Furthermore, it has been alleged that Chinese authorities have been hesitant to actively apprehend North Korean operators based on shifting bilateral relations and the geopolitical climate.
North Korea’s narcotrafficking not only affects China, but also impacts South Korea, which has been experiencing an increase in methamphetamine-related cases. South Korean police and prosecutors have frequently referred to narcotrafficking cases involving narcotics originating from North Korea, with references to North Korea’s Ministry of State Security.
On October 26, 2022, South Korea’s President Yoon and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) declared a war on drugs. Earlier this year, there were revelations about a methamphetamine blackmail scheme targeting minors at a cram-school in Seoul, with the methamphetamine originating from China. South Korea has been experiencing an increase in methamphetamine-related narcotrafficking cases, some of which may plausibly involve North Korea and other TCOs.
While cooperation between China and South Korea is needed to effectively address this issue, it is unclear whether such cooperation will be forthcoming. Consider, for example, the lack of cooperation thus far between the United States and China regarding the fentanyl crisis. The current geopolitical environment does not appear to be conducive to significant bilateral cooperation between Seoul and Beijing on narcotrafficking, including narcotics originating from North Korea.
Jong-Min Lee is a Master of Arts in Law & Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, pursuing a concentration in International Security and Public International Law. He is a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, where he pursued a concentration in Security Policy and Global Public Health.
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 Song Young-ji, “Han joong hyeongsa sabeop gongjo-eui munjaejeom-gwa gaesun bangan” [Problems in International Mutual Assistance between Korea and China and the Improvement Plan], Kangwon Law Review 59 (2020): 263–94.
 Son Hye-min, “China Uncovers North Korean State-Sponsored Drug Ring after Arrests,” Radio Free Asia, October 11, 2020. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/nk-china-meth-agents-05282019164756.html.
 For example, see Park Hyun-jun, “검찰, 北에 포섭돼 마약판매 시도 50대 구속기소” [Prosecution Service Indicts 50-year-old for Attempting to Sell Narcotics on North Korea’s Behalf], Asia Business Daily, May 25, 2010. http://cm.asiae.co.kr/article/2010052516351574974.
 Lee Sung-eun, “Yoon, PPP Declare War on Drugs,” Korea JoongAng Daily, October 26, 2022. https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2022/10/26/national/socialAffairs/korea-drugs-drug-smuggling/20221026184624813.html.
 Jun Ji-hye, “Police Request Chinese Authorities’ Assistance in Drug-Laced Drinks Case,” The Korea Times, April 10, 2023.
 Vanda Felbab-Brown, “China’s Role in the Fentanyl Crisis,” The Brookings Institute, March 31, 2023. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/chinas-role-in-the-fentanyl-crisis/.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.