North Korea’s government has reportedly gone out of the drug business, but savvy — or desperate — entrepreneurs are finding a ready market for methamphetamine both inside the country and around the globe.
Homemade meth from North Korea, known as “orum” or “ice,” has been found in 16 drug arrests in China since 2008 in quantities of up to 22 pounds, Harvard University researcher Sheena Chestnut Greitens told the Los Angeles Times.
“Meth is a product you can make in bathtubs or trailers. You have a wide range of people involved in production and trafficking,” Greitens said.
Because there’s so little stigma attached to its use in North Korea — people take it to treat colds, boost energy, keep them awake for work, or curb appetites in a country where food is scarce — methamphetamine is offered up as casually as a cup of tea, the newspaper reported.
“If you go to somebody’s house, it is a polite way to greet somebody by offering them a sniff,” Lee Saera, 43, of Hoeryong and interviewed in China, told the Times. “It is like drinking coffee when you’re sleepy, but ice is so much better.”
Government drug manufacturing operations ceased after 1999, and with analgesics hard to come by, North Korea has been relatively easy about homemade drugs and their use, the newspaper reported.
Park Kyung Ok, 44, also interviewed in China by the Times, said she became a meth dealer after a North Korean coal mine where she worked stopped paying salaries.
Buying grams of meth in Chongjin and selling it in her nearby hometown of Hoeryong, she told the Times she earned “just enough money that I could buy rice to eat and coal for heating.”
It’s also tailor-made for dealers who cook the drug in kitchen labs, “Breaking Bad”-style, then sell it to be exported by smugglers, the Times reported.
Late last year, five alleged drug smugglers were extradited from Thailand to the United States to face charges of smuggling 220 pounds of crystal meth. They told a federal court in New York last month that the drug originated in North Korea, the Times said.
When the North Korean government controlled the business, the drugs were strictly for export, the Times reported. But since individuals took over the business, meth began showing up on the streets in North Korea around 2005. The drug came from Hamhung, the onetime center of the nation’s pharmaceutical and chemical industry, the Times reported.
“North Korean people learn fast to reuse their skills,” Kim Yong Chol, 58, a truck driver who fled North Korea in August, told the newspaper.
It is unclear how serious the North Korean government is about cracking down on the drug trade, the Times reported.
“If you are caught once or twice, with only a small amount like me, you can get away with it if you have connections. But a third time, you will be in real trouble,” Park told the Times. “I was doing bad things because everybody else was doing bad things.”
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By Cathy Burke