Like many across East Asia, North Koreans have been exchanging presents this month to celebrate the Lunar New Year. But rather than tea, sweets or clothing, some in this impoverished, isolated country are giving the gift of crystal meth.
The gifting and use of methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that has been blamed in health and addiction crises around the world, is said to be a well-established custom in North Korea. Users are said to inject or snort the drug as casually as they might smoke a cigarette, with little awareness of its addictive qualities or destructive effects.
“Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug — something like Red Bull, amplified,” said Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, who directs the news site NK News. That misconception, he said, highlighted a “significant underestimation” within the country of the general risks of drug abuse.
In the 1990s, the North’s cash-poor government began manufacturing meth for export, according to a 2014 study by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a University of Missouri political scientist. Finished meth was typically sent across the northern border into China, or handed off at sea to criminal organizations like Chinese triads or the Japanese yakuza.
But around the mid-2000s, meth production that was “clearly sponsored and controlled” by the government began to decline, the study said. That left a surplus of people with the skills to manufacture meth, many of whom created small-scale meth labs and began selling to the local market.
Experts say the custom of gifting crystal meth in North Korea is essentially an open secret. While meth is illegal there, the drug has effectively become legal “because officials take bribes to look the other way, and because the state indirectly benefits from a food chain of bribes that goes all the way to the top,” said Justin Hastings, a political scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia who has studied North Korean drug trafficking.
“Over time, this has resulted in a culture where people are willing to take risks to make money and official state prohibition has little meaning,” Hastings said.