By: Brendan Haskin
In 2013, the DEA made a bust that landed headlines worldwide. An American agent operating in Thailand performed a sting operation that led to the arrest of five international drug smugglers. The smugglers, who held British, Filipino, Slovak, and Chinese citizenship, had worked with former American soldier turned international drug dealer Joseph Hunter, and had ties to a transnational criminal group that had dealt in “drugs, weapons, chemical, murder, and a close involvement with rogue nations,” according to a senior federal law officer. The nation in question was North Korea, from where the smugglers had acquired at least 100 Kilograms of methamphetamine.
It wasn’t the first time drugs had been traced back to the reclusive nation. In the last few decades, there have been a least 50 documented cases of smuggling associated with North Korea, a nation long believed to be funding itself a least partly from the drug trade. It was, however, one of the most significant busts associated with vast industry that has become North Korean meth. While accurate numbers a hard to verify, it is estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of North Koreans are addicted to meth. The new global addiction, meth has become a problem that world governments must increasingly acknowledge, and its no surprise to find it in a country in the midst of such desperation as North Korea. The consequences of the Korean meth trade, however, have wide ranging implications for governments that might not expect.
First, a brief history of North Korean meth production might be in order. From 1994 to 1998, North Korea experienced what the country refers to as the “Arduous March”, when a combination of economic mismanagement, aid cutoffs from Soviet collapse, and several natural floods and droughts caused significant famine. Out of approximately 22 million citizens, somewhere between half a million to 3.5 million Koreans died of starvation. Sometime during the ensuing social turmoil, crystal meth surfaced in country, giving many unemployed doctors and scientists a possible way of making money for their families. For the next several years, the government, despite imposing other draconian penalties, largely ignored the drug. But in 2003, the country took a dangerous turn.
President Kim Jong Il was told of increasing crystal meth production across the country, and instead of condemning it, he saw it as an opportunity for his cash-strapped government to fund itself. Domestically, meth use was encouraged, and Kim Jong Il ordered that the drug be known as a “strong antibiotic”. It became common to be offered meth a medical treatment for common ailments, almost as if it were aspirin. People take meth for headaches; people offer each other meth alongside tea when hosting visitors. Meth became normalized as a part of North Korean society, to the point where there is no stigma associated with its use, in sharp contrast to most other societies, where the drug is synonymous with desperation. Perversely, the same famine that led to its emergence helped make it popular, since appetite suppression is a side effect of use.
The North Korean government thus began a drug smuggling operation that made use of the country’s booming meth production as a covert means of funding. Most sources indicate the North Korean government had agents smuggle meth into China until 2004, when reports of large scale smuggling ceased. It is possible, however, that the smuggling continued secretly, or through more indirect methods. A prominent South Korean newspaper recently reported that North Korea had its diplomats sell meth in their assigned countries to fund the continued operation of its foreign embassies. A former diplomat and defector reported that he sold approximately $300,000 worth of meth in an Eastern European country, and estimates that North Korea makes approximately $100 to $200 million a year selling meth.
The sheer quantity of meth being produced in from the DPRK has hardly incentivized ordinary Koreans to avoid smuggling for personal profit. Because of the government semiofficially sanctioned the drug, Korean meth has been widely observed as frequently having high purity (often from 95-99% pure), and is a highly desirable commodity on the global drug market. Everyone from ordinary citizens desperate for money to more organized drug traders move meth across the border into China, and there have been documented cases of Korean meth being resold by the Taiwanese Triads and by the Japanese Yakuza. It’s at this point that the drug becomes a much bigger international problem, and one that many nations ought to take note of.
China has recently struggled to deal with its increasing meth problem. Besides the influx of meth from its Korean border, the fact that meth can be produced from household chemical has led to an uptick in domestic production. Meth has overtaken heroin as the most popular drug among Chinese addicts, since besides being easy to produce, many in China see the drug as having practical benefits. It has become popular among blue-collar workers, since its powerful effects as a stimulant help alleviate the menial drudgery of work and help keep workers with long hours awake. Truck drivers and factory workers have been particularly known to use it, but meth has started to infiltrate wealthier areas as a party drug and aphrodisiac. The result is that Chinese authorities are now involved in what might soon be the biggest war on drugs in the world. Chinese authorities seized over 8 tones of crystal meth in the second half of 2013 alone, which alongside more established drugs adds up to the biggest drug numbers in the world.
In response, China has begun a war on drugs that western observers will find eerily familiar. Chinese media now features images of drugs raids and shutdowns of meth production facilities. Several high profile celebrities in China, including popular writer Chen Wanning, and Jaycee Chan, son of Kung Fu star Jackie Chan, have recently been arrested for possession of meth. In a stunt that is half public relations, half actual necessity, China recently announced that it will be turning labor camps from the more hardline days of communism in to drug rehabilitation centers. Chinese students are now subjected to drug education programs that resemble the American initiatives like D.A.R.E. Chinese students are warned about Qat, an East African plant that serves as a minor stimulant in the Arab world. The authorities claim it may be a gateway drug that leads to harder substances, similar to common American claims about marijuana. These are familiar tactics that immediately bring to mind western analogues. It is precisely for that reason the Chinese ought to be concerned. Public stigma, childhood educations, and state-sponsored rehabilitation might cut down some drug use, but in regions like Guangdong, increasingly infamous for its drug production, China is in danger of entrenching it self in the same directionless war on drugs that has plagued American inner cities and the rural south.
It doesn’t help that Chinese criminals show increasing ties to the greater global drug trade. In 2007, a Chinese-Mexican businessman was arrested in Mexico City for suspected connections to the infamous Sinaloa cartel. Zhenli Ye Gon came under suspicion when he imported more than 96 tons of chemicals from China to Mexico, presumably to produce cough medicine like pseudoephedrine. It didn’t take much for authorities to realize his true intentions, since the precursor chemicals of pseudoephedrine production are also the main ingredients for crystal meth production. It should be noted that despite his Chinese supply and status as a foreigner, Ye Gon was living comfortably as a Mexican kingpin. A raid of his mansion found $205 million hidden in his walls, alongside typically ostentatious trophies, including gold-plated, military grade firearms. As if this wasn’t enough to indicate that foreigner dealers have no trouble making it in established markets, the Mexican tabloid press took up Ye Gon’s case as a populist rallying cry, and a poll in Reforma newspaper showed many Mexicans supported Ye Gon’s absurd claim that he was framed. Bumper stickers saying, “I believe in the Chinaman” went on sale and proved distressingly popular.
The meth that Ye Gong helped produce was then distributed by the cartel, meaning it has been consumed all over the world. Notably, American authorities are concerned that meth of Chinese or North Korean origin may have found its way to New York city. But meth is easy to produce domestically through the chemical process known as cooking, meaning that instead of drug shipments, authorities need to look out for relatively common chemicals. Indian authorities in Mumbai have traced chemical shipments linked to meth to China, Mexico, Myanmar, Africa, and a number of Central American nations. Indian kingpins common from yet more diverse backgrounds. Current Mumbai kingpins include a South American drug lord with ties to Columbian cocaine production, a Moroccan with Dutch and Iranian employees, and Vietnam-born Canadian national, and a Hong Kong multimillionaire with Triad connections- to say nothing of the scale of Mumbai’s drug industry, which has links to B-grade Bollywood studios and local businesses. Needless to say, the global drug trade booming.
Despite, or perhaps because of struck economic sanctions, the Iranian capital or Tehran has seen meth production spikes in recent years. Crystal meth was first reported in Iran in 2008. By 2012, Iran was the world’s fourth largest importer of pseudoephedrine, and meth had overtaken all drugs except opium in terms of national popularity. For Iranians, much like North Koreans, meth is convenient. Since it can be produced domestically, dealers no longer lose profit Afghan middlemen by importing heroin. It’s wide variety of effects means it is marketable to a wide range of demographics: Image-conscious young women take it to lose weight; wealthy younger people see it as a luxury and status symbol; office workers take it to work effectively; ordinary addicts just like the high. The Iranian government attempted to crack down on meth production, and discovered more than 375 meth labs in 2013. But Iran spends $1 billion of its anti-drug budget a year to secure its 900-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and economic sanctions have taken their toll on funding. That also means that drug treatment programs have been slashed, and addiction is only rising.
There is little indication that the situation is improving. Few, if any nations, end up developing coherent strategies to prevent drugs from spreading. While dealers have become increasingly global, nations are largely forced to deal with drugs as a domestic issue. Drug addiction transcends government systems, giving authoritarian nations and democracies a decidedly uncomfortable middle ground. But if the criminals can get smarter, so can the governments. The American war on drugs is frequently taken to symbolize futility. The HBO series The Wire, which depicts an inner city drug conflict, has a character noting grimly “You can’t even call this a war…war’s end.” But if drugs become the problem of many governments, it just might be a chance collaborate and gain the same fluidity of the criminals. There is no single, easy solution to global drug addiction, nor should anyone expect much action to be taken in the short term. The idea of a global DEA is hardly feasible. But a globalized war on drugs seems like an inevitable response to a global drug trade, and hopefully, one that might curb a growing addiction while avoiding the mistakes of the past.