A middle-class mother walks into the room where her 11-year-old daughter is wearily poring over textbooks as she prepares for crucial secondary-school entrance exams.

Taking care not to distract the child from her studies, mum gently strokes her daughter’s hair – and then hands her a glass of milk and a little something to help her stay awake.

The pick-me-up she lovingly administers to her daughter is rather more potent than a caffeine tablet or a spoonful of sugar: it is a dose of the highly addictive and potentially fatal drug methamphetamine, popularly known as crystal meth.

It is a scene that could have come from the imagination of the writers of Breaking Bad, the hit American television series that tells the story of a chemistry teacher who starts producing the illegal drug to provide for his family after discovering he has terminal cancer. But this real-life drama was acted out on the other side of the world, in a setting far removed from the fictional events in New Mexico. It happened in North Korea, in a town in North Hamgyong province, near the border with China, in the impoverished country’s rural northeast.

Within the secretive state, there appears to be an epidemic of crystal meth so widespread that, in some communities, more than 50 per cent of people are users, according to a report released by two Seoul-based academics who have interviewed defectors, including the schoolgirl’s unwitting mother.

Professor Kim Seok-hyang, of the Department of North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, says the mother’s account is far from exceptional. So little is known about the drug’s harmful effects in North Korea, and so many myths have developed about its medical benefits, that parents often give it to their children oblivious to the harm they may be doing.

“Most people in North Korea have no idea,” says Kim. “They think the drug is a good thing to relieve their pain. They see it as a cure-all medicine. They say, ‘I do not have enough medical treatment but if I take this methamphetamine it lessens my back pain, my headache.’” In small doses, crystal meth relieves pain and induces a feeling of euphoria and well-being.

“Many of them say, ‘Methamphetamine is the only thing we can rely on,’” says Kim. “They know about opium addiction but they think methamphetamine is different.” The story of how North Korea apparently got hooked on crystal meth is as strange and surreal as the hermit state itself. The drug’s rapid spread also gives insight into the way the regime’s control over its people and its attitudes to the free market have fundamentally changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the devastating famine of the 1990s.

The report, “A New Face of North Korean Drug Use” by Kim and Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Kookmin University’s College of Social Studies, found that there has been a dramatic upsurge in methamphetamine use in rural northern areas of North Korea since 2005, which, they say, now constitutes an epidemic. The testimony of 21 defectors – combined with official reports from North Korea and China – presents what the academics say is “a worrying picture of escalating drug abuse in what was once one of the world’s most strictly supervised and controlled societies”. The report was written for the academic journal North Korea Review.

East Asia has a long history with methamphetamine. The drug was first discovered in Japan in the late 19th century and would later be used in the second world war, when “storming tablets” of methamphetamine mixed with green tea powder and stamped with the emperor’s crest were given to kamikaze pilots.

That grim demonstration of the drug’s military benefits was taken to heart by post-war North Korea. Throughout the Korean war and cold war years, soldiers were reportedly fed methamphetamine made in state-run factories to bolster their endurance and help them stay alert for days on end. The practice endured long after the years of direct conflict. One defector, a doctor, described hearing of socalled “wartime drugs” – powerful stimulants – produced and stockpiled in the 1980s for use in case of war or national emergency, an ever-present threat in a paranoid dictatorship.

North Korea became notorious for its production and distribution of drugs.

Diplomats were caught carrying drugs overseas in the mid-70s, with cases continuing into the mid-90s, when there was still, it is believed, a huge state-sponsored opium production operation.

For decades, defectors have testified that methamphetamine was produced at plants in Hamhung, South Hamgyong province, and Sangwon, near Pyongyang, both for illicit export to China, to generate hard currency, and for officially sanctioned domestic use, largely among the country’s military – which perhaps explains the wide-eyed energy of the goose-stepping soldiers at North Korean military parades.

In around 2004, however, everything changed. Either because of a lack of money or in an attempt to clean up the country’s image, production of the drug at government- run pharmaceutical plants was scaled down or stopped altogether – a development that triggered an explosive growth in the number of private “kitchen labs” in Hamhung and other areas. The drug, now being produced on a far greater scale, is being made, it is claimed, by the technicians and scientists who once worked in state factories. Stripped of government salaries and their access to food rations, they were driven in their desperation to become black-market profiteers – rather like the lead character, Walter White, in Breaking Bad.

Describing the emergence of this unlikely breed of drug producer, one dissident – a 46-year-old former North Korean miner – said: “They were researchers with PhDs and engineers. They were rather old people and had nothing to do, and their lives were tough. Private entrepreneurs began to look for such people and give them money, employ them. And these people began to produce narcotics again.”

The switch from government to private production mirrors changes in North Korean society as a whole, where, the report’s authors say, the state has been “pushed aside by booming if unofficial private manufacturing and commerce”.

The effects of the boom in private production of crystal meth have been felt across the border. The drug’s two main ingredients – ephedrine and phenylacetone – are not easily available in North Korea and are often smuggled from China. A 40-year-old former North Korean police officer said manufacturing was frequently a joint operation between the Chinese and North Korean underworlds.

“Chinese gangs provide the raw material and then a significant part of the ready product is smuggled back to China,” he said. “This arrangement makes sense for both sides. The North Korean manufacturers get ingredients cheaper while the Chinese partners minimise the risk of exposure.”

Because of the smell and fumes they produce, methamphetamine labs are difficult to operate undetected in urban China, but in North Korea there are empty factories, a higher level of corruption and a more lenient attitude generally towards drugs.

The symptoms of the epidemic are clear in one of the provinces bordering North Korea. A report in 2010 by the Brookings Institution found that while 70 per cent of drug addicts in China as a whole use heroin, in Jilin, more than 90 per cent of addicts use methamphetamine.

In North Korea, crystal meth first became popular among professional men in their 30s and 40s who wanted to increase their endurance because of their work or status, testimony suggests.

“People who earned money through foreign trade nearly all used narcotics,” one defector recalled. “Police officers, state security officers, party cadres, administrative officials all had their supply lines and they spread it among their friends.”

Some men would use it to impress mistresses, showing off their wealth. Upmarket restaurants served up methamphetamine after a meal “like a dessert or a cup of coffee” the academics’ report noted – comparing the origins of the epidemic to the cocaine epidemic that gripped the United States between 1981 and 1991.

As talk of its medicinal and recreational benefits spread in North Korea, the drug began to be used by the broader population, who reasoned that, if it was being used by rich people, it must be safe and beneficial. Private factories producing crystal meth spread from the north of the country to all regions. Finally, in 2009-10, the habit spread to the young – high school and college students.

Defectors interviewed by the Seoul academics spoke of “at least 50 per cent” of people in some communities in the north of the country as being users. And most people remain convinced of its benefits.

“If people in the countryside take it, their backache is cured – and if you give it to people who have had a stroke, they recover,” said a 55-yearold woman who defected in 2010.

Inevitably, however, addicts whose health and savings have been wiped out by crystal meth have begun to appear in sufficient numbers for a new term – “munlan” – to have been coined, to describe people degraded by the drug.

North Korea’s lenient attitude towards drug dealing appears to have exacerbated its spread. A 53-year-old female college lecturer who defected in 2007 said that if a dealer was caught, they would be imprisoned for a maximum of two years. Meanwhile, bribes to officials were now often paid in drugs instead of foreign currency and social consumption of methamphetamine had become the norm, defectors said.

The epidemic, the report concludes, has reached “remarkable proportions and keeps growing, engulfing new social groups and new regions”.

“We believe there is a need for international aid in dealing with the problem,” the authors say. “The introduction of modern drug treatment techniques as well as assistance with education campaigns could be the first priorities of foreign donors.”

The closed nature of North Korean society has meant that knowledge of crystal meth’s effect on people’s health has only slowly begun to emerge.

Dissidents say there have been poster campaigns and attempts by the government to talk about the danger of drugs in the weekly indoctrination sessions communities are forced to attend. Those sessions, however, highlight only the dangers of the drug to the state rather than that to the individual. People are told that drugs are illegal and “unbecoming of a socialist state” but are told little or nothing about how crystal meth can damage one’s health, according to the witnesses.

“Dissidents who left North Korea soon after methamphetamine started to become widely available have a very good impression of the drug,” says Kim. “If they left North Korea later, however – in 2009 or 2010 – some of them realise methamphetamine is bad and harmful for their health.

“Almost everyone who left after 2010 will tell you that the use of methamphetamine is a very serious problem in the north in general.”

Crystal meth is an expensive commodity in a poverty-racked country.

One gram costs the equivalent of 5kg to 10kg of rice.

“Most people are happy to pay for it, however, because they think it is the only cure-all medicine they can rely on and they do not realise the harmful effects,” says Kim. And it is not only the sick the drug appeals to.

“People take it so they can be awake and alert at all times,” she says. “For example, if you are forced to attend an important party members meeting, you need to be really awake and active otherwise you might be accused of lacking loyalty.”

To Lankov, the crystal-meth epidemic is a sign of the collapse of control within North Korea and a reflection of the way the regime has changed since the dissolution of its arch sponsor, the Soviet Union, and the 90s famine.

“There is always an assumption that if something bad happens in North Korea, it happens because of the government,” he says. “In this case, though, we see a very interesting development. The North Korean government has essentially taken some positive steps. They have scaled down or maybe completely halted state drug production.

That is obviously good news, but then the common people – the downtrodden – begin to do the things the government used to do itself.”

The idea of private drug production within North Korea would have been unthinkable two decades ago, he says. “Everyone was controlled back then – everyone was watched around the clock. But that is not the case anymore.”

The old system collapsed when there were no longer the resources to support it.

“You had to pay enforcers,” says Lankov. “Those enforcers produced nothing but political stability and you had to pay them a lot to make sure that everybody in the community, everybody in your country, was exposed to something like six to 10 hours of indoctrination and brainwashing chat every week.

“It was an expensive system and it became unsustainable when the country was hit by the economic crisis. In the early 90s, when the economy began to fall apart, the government discovered it had no money to pay the enforcers. And they weren’t going to work for free.”

When the controls were relaxed, a black market emerged in which private entrepreneurs could operate while the state turned a blind eye. The people of Pyongyang “would starve to death without the free market”, says Lankov.

It is against this social backdrop of freewheeling entrepreneurship and official indifference that the crystal-meth epidemic has spread – but no one yet knows whether it is a sign that the regime is crumbling, says Lankov.

“We have been told the regime is coming to an end for roughly 20 years and people felt disappointed because the promised collapse has not happened,” he says. “Like many of my colleagues I do believe that in the long run the regime is doomed but the trouble is the long run might be very long indeed.”

In the shorter term, “what we have is a new health crisis in a place where there are already a great many problems”, Lankov says. “North Korea already has a remarkably sick population. Some of these people will already be beyond repair.

The drug is addictive and clearly does a great deal of damage to people’s health.”

Asked what the Pyongyang government could do to tackle the problem, he replies: “They should pay more attention to education, to explain to people they are essentially killing themselves with drugs and also dramatically increase punishment.

North Korea is too soft on drug dealers and drug manufacturers. If they give them harsher sentences it will help.”

Although North Korea is notoriously unwilling to take advice from other countries, Kim says they should try to hold out a helping hand.

“Maybe the world, including South Korea, could send medical facilities and the medicine they need,” she says. “If we just announce that methamphetamine is harmful without sending any kind of medicine, they will have no option but to continue to rely on this kind of drug.”

Whether North Korea has the inclination or resources to bring its crystal-meth habit under control remains to be seen, but for the 11-year-old schoolgirl and her misguided mother, at least, there has been a happy ending.

Four years on, both are living in Seoul after escaping with other family members from North Korea. The girl is performing well at school and passing her exams without suffering any obvious long-term effects from her intake of crystal meth.

“The mother was horrified when she realised what she had done,” says Kim.

“She simply had no idea that the drug could be bad for her. It shows how widespread and deep-rooted the problem is.”

Text: Red Door News Hong Kong



What is crystal meth?

Methamphetamine is one of the world's most popular illicit drugs, with 35 million users worldwide, compared with 15 million cocaine addicts and 10 million heroin addicts, according to the World Health Organisation.

Known by a variety of names, including speed, ice, shabu and yaba yaba, it is taken in crystal form and usually swallowed or snorted. It's a powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system and produces intoxication by stimulating brain receptors.

Discovered in Japan in the late 19th century, it was first used as a medicine to treat nasal congestion, asthma and narcolepsy, in the early 20th century.

Taken in low doses, methamphetamine can ease tiredness and increase alertness, energy and concentration. It induces a feeling of euphoria, enhances self-esteem and increases libido.

In higher doses, or if used regularly, it can trigger headaches, accelerated or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, diarrhoea, dizziness and, in extreme cases, heart attacks, strokes and death. It is associated with a variety of psychological disorders among abusers, including paranoia, hallucinations and psychosis.

Methamphetamine is classed as highly addictive. Withdrawal symptoms can last for months and include depression, insomnia and suicidal tendencies.

Simon Parry