North Korea: Drugs Rampant, Even Among Teens

North Korean insiders and defectors have testified that drugs are widespread in North Korea. Most recent reports told that drugs are popular gifts among teens and even ordinary middle-class citizens are frequently abusing them. The Kim regime's policy to earn foreign currency by drug trafficking had backfired and undermined already devastated public health.

Image of Opium Poppy Flower, By Alvesgaspar, Creative Commons 3.0

Blogger 푸른깃발 (: Blue Flag) who works in the media field, wrote [ko] how innocent kids have become drug addicts. 

아이들도 예외가 아니다. 아이들은「백도라지」, 「약 담배」, 「외화벌이용 약초」등으로 불리는 양귀비 파종, 재배, 채취과정에 동원된다. 어른들은 몰래 훔쳐갈 가능성이 높지만, 저학년일수록 훔쳐갈 가능성이 낮은 탓이다. 양귀비 생산에 동원된 아이들은 아직 피지 않은 꽃망울을 따서 씹어 먹거나 씨앗을 간식으로 먹곤 한다. 생아편을 비상약으로 사용하거나, 상습적으로 물에 타서 마시기도 한다. 마약에 친숙해진 아이들은 점점 마약에 중독돼 간다.

Children are no exception. Calling the poppy plant, ‘White Bellflower’ (Technical Name: Platycodon grandiflorus), ‘Medical Cigarette’ or ‘Foreign currency earning herb’, the regime mobilized children in seeding, cultivating and gathering of poppy plants. They preferred children because adults are highly likely to steal them. The younger the children are, the less the possibility of theft. The kids often plucked and nibbled bloomed flower buds and ate poppy seeds as a snack. People used the raw opium as an emergency medicine and frequently dissolved it into water to drink it. As kids got familiar with the drug, more have gradually turned addicts.

The blogger quoted testimony of Ju Sung-ha, North Korean defector-turned journalist who now works for DongA Ilbo, South Korea's conservative media. Ju runs Nambuk Story [ko] (full name:서울에서 쓰는 평양 이야기, Pyeongyang's Story Writing in Seoul) a famous blog with 1 million subscribers which gives detailed portraits of North Korean society.

위장을 위해 양귀비에 백도라지라는 가짜 이름을 붙이고, 가장 지력이 좋은 땅에 양귀비를 심고 가꿨다…7월이면 어린 학생들까지 총동원돼 아편 원액을 추출했는데, 역한 냄새에 학생들이 쓰러지는 일도 많아 밭머리에 의료진까지 대기했다…원액을 뽑고 난 열매에 좁쌀처럼 생긴 고소한 노란 씨가 가득 차 있어 아이들의 간식으로 인기였고, 아편중독자가 생겨났다.

To disguise the plant (as an ordinary herb) they even gave a fake name to the poppy, ‘the white bellflower’ and planted it in one of most fertile land[…] In July, young students were called in to extract the undiluted opium solution and some passed out due to the disgusting smell of the opium. The paramedics were standing on call near the end of the poppy field. After extracting the poppy solution, the fruit was left with nut-flavoring yellow seeds the size of millet. The seeds were a popular snack among kids and many have turned into opium addicts.

The North Korean military which are supposed to control drug trafficking are believed to be the most fervent traders of drugs. A South Korean blog, NK Inside posted a video of illegal poppy trade done by North Korean military officials.

썩을만큼 썩어버린 북한 군인의 실태입니다. 국경부근에서 마약 밀매가 성행하고 있다는 것은 이미 잘 알려진 사실이지만 북한 군인이 오히려 더 설치고 있다니. 북한산 마약은 중국에서 쉽게 구할 수 있다고 합니다. 마약과 위폐, 인신매매가 김정일 정권의 체제를 유지하는 강력한 수단이기 때문에 북한 사회는 갈수록 피폐해질 것입니다.

Can North Korean military get more corrupted? It is already general knowledge that the illegal drug trade is rampant near the border area, but the North Korean army went wild with the drug. Shocking. I heard that North Korean-made drugs are easily accessible in China. Since these three, the drug trade, counterfeit money circulation and human trafficking are pillars that hold up the Kim Jong-il regime, North Korean society will be further devastated.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based online media, is run by many North Korean defectors who have often been blackmailed by the North Korean regime for revealing dark aspects of North Korean society. They reported with a sensational title [ko], ‘Drug, the most popular birthday gifts among NK teens.’ The article claimed that drugs which only the affluent class could afford had trickled down to the middle-class. According to the report, students inhale them from a pen or 5,000 Won bill, which has Kim Il-sung's portrait, and some young girls barter sex to get more drugs. It later added that even after the North Korean government dispatched a censorship task force, no breakthrough has yet been made. North Korean insiders commented that ‘since the drug users are children of high-profile government workers in the ruling Worker’s Union or from the very affluent class, the censorship office is having a hard time in strictly applying the law.

Radio Free Asia(RFA) reported a very similar story [ko], quoting one laborer saying that since the work was too burdensome and people were conscripted in freezing weather, all members of his labor force had drugs. And thanks to the drug's effect, he said ‘they ran, almost flew about 12 kilometer towing sledges.’ This shocking revelation has been partly confirmed by North Korean defectors. One young defector boy is believed to have entered a rehabilitation center right after successfully fleeing to South Korea.

A Seoul-based think tank run by defectors, North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity also posted a similar insider video of the illicit drug trade [ko]. (Posting No. 247, video currently unavailable)

Blogger Citrain64 posted an analysis of the reason for the  drugs outbreak. The blogger wrote that the drugs which the rich class used to buy to show-off their wealth are now consumed by ordinary citizens, out of necessity.

[…]북한은 정부에서 주도적으로 마약을 만들고 해외에 밀수하는 국가라는 점을 알아두어야 한다.[…]이렇게 북한에서 생산된 마약이 외부에 수출되기도 하지만 내부에서 유통되기도 그만큼 쉽다. 따라서 최근 탈북자들은 “북한에서는 마약 구하기가 아스피린 구하는 것보다 쉽다”라고 할 정도이다.[…]북한에 의약품이 절대적으로 부족한 실정을 알아두어야 한다. 마약을 부유층뿐 아니라 중산층 이상의 일반 주민들도 애용하고 있다. […]북한 주민들 사이에 가장 흔한 병은 동상이다…마땅히 동상 치료를 해야 하지만 의약품이 부족하니 순간의 고통을 이겨내기 위해 마약을 찾는 것이다. 동상 뿐 아니라, 결핵에 걸리거나 위장염에도 양귀비 꽃을 끓여 마시거나 잎을 삶아 먹는 방법 등으로 치료하는 경우가 많다고 한다.

[…] The North Korean government is taking the lead in producing and trafficking drugs[…] Some of it is sold outside and some is circulating inside the North. Recently-defected people even commented ‘In North Korea, getting drugs is easier than getting aspirin’ […] An absolute shortage of medicine: Not only the rich but middle class people are regularly using drugs. […] The most common disease among North Koreans is frostbite. People search after drugs to cure frostbite because they lack proper medicine. Beside frostbite, to cure tuberculosis and digestive system inflammation, they drink boiled water containing the poppy flower and eat boiled poppy leaves.

The blogger added that the lack of any public campaign on the dangers of drugs has also contributed to the worsening situation. Those stories quoting North Korean defectors or insiders are considered not entirely reliable, since many of them tend to dramatize the real story. But the repetitive confessions about drug abuse mean it is not entirely a made-up story. In January 2002, Japanese officials seized 150 kilograms of methamphetamine from a North Korean vessel, and in July 2002, Taiwan government officials apprehended 9 men carrying 79 kilograms of heroin, according to a Heritage Foundation report.


  • Nicolas Wong

    great report
    thank u!

  • I concur with Nicholas, well done. Of particular interest is the shift of drug use from the elites with money to burn to the North Korean underclass…We often hear about North Korean meth/ice exports into Japan or China, but, as in places like Afghanistan (at least as I understand the problem), it is the domestic use of the drug where the effects are in many ways the most important.

    I would love to see more translations of Nambuk Story, glad to see it parsed here!

  • Greg van de Krol

    So the North Korean army consists not only of brain-washed slaves of an insane despot, but corrupt drug lords as well?!? Can you imagine Mexican drug cartels practising restraint if THEY had nuclear capabilities?

    Thank you for this excellent post Lee Yoo, but I’m not sure I will be able to sleep again after reading it… : (

  • […] People in  North Korea  have found out  that drugs are  all over  North Korea. From the last report told that drugs are  popular gifts among teens and even  kids in middle school.They are all over the drugs that some of them are abusing each other for it. They tried to track  down the source of the drugs but they couldn’t find anybody so this mission back fired but they aren’t giving up yet . The  kids health are so bad for an average teen. The flower you can see is a flower that contains medial cigarette. The technical name for it is  Platycodon grandiflorus.The less the possibility of theft. The kids often plucked and nibbled bloomed flower buds and ate poppy seeds as a snack. If you’re wondering why you should care about this is because the flowers have cigarettes in them and  they could spread around the world and your kids and people around them could start drugs with the  flower and thinking that its cool so they will pick up on it  the part I don’t get is why  you would ever think of eating whats inside a flower. I think that they shouldnt let these  grow wild.  Since these are used for medical  reasons they should plant them in a garden or something. […]

  • Rick Stewart

    I always have a hard time when ‘bad government’ stories try to mix with ‘Drug War’ stories. First of all – the governments we like to call ‘good’ are the creators of the Drug Problem. By criminalizing things people want to do, ‘good’ governments hand existing criminals (gangs, Mafia, etc.) huge amounts of money, and also create millions of new criminals (users).

    Second – most people who try to demonize drugs, for tangential purposes, simply have no idea what they are talking about. Poppies, opium, and heroin are relatively benign, actually, although they obviously do have addictive potential (addiction, however, is a greatly overrated problem; cold turkey heroin withdrawal is almost, but not quite, as bad as the 3 day flu).

    The author’s description of behavior in poppy fields clearly indicates s/he has never been in one (yes, I have, and I have harvested opium from one, for reasons of professional curiosity).

    So – North Korea. It is a sign of their pitiful economic policies that manufacturing methamphetamine is one of the best money making opportunities they have been able to find. And it is a sign of pitiful policies in ‘good’ government countries that we aren’t smart enough to wipe out that money making potential by simply legalizing it. Will its availability in N Korea harm the population? Not much, really, and in fact it might actually help some people get through their miserable days, as the ‘running while pulling a sledge’ story illustrates.

    As for poppies – again we could eliminate N Korea’s profits (not to mention 70% of the Taliban’s income) by simply legalizing it. Meanwhile it is highly unlikely to cause any problems at all for the N Korean population, and in fact has even greater potential than methamphetamines to make their miserable lives somewhat more bearable.

    Worries about drugs’ impact on ‘the children’ tend to be nonsense – doesn’t everyone know America’s ‘crack babies’ have grown up and turned out to be … normal!? It’s not a recommendation for handing your children narcotics, it is a recommendation for refusing to believe Narcoticsman is hiding under your bed and likely to come out and grab your children if you don’t wring your hands and howl to the moon three times every night.

    In short, were I a N Korean, I would appreciate the availability of a little opium to smoke from time to time, to dull the hard edge of the government’s economic incompetence.

  • […] We discussed briefly about the issue with drugs in Korea. The usage is increasing, and it has become easier to purchase drugs online, but it is still in the dark side compared to western countries. I think that this has much to do with strong regulations. (Here are two articles about the current state of North Korea’s drug issue which you may find interesting: […]

  • The big black

    I dunno. I want to move 2 North Korea after seeing this report.

  • fp

    ur stupid

    i knw ur comments frm a yr ago but i just found this article and i think you should move there.. sneak it set up shop.. i givr it lrss than a week before ur hung by ur arms bamboo shoved into ur toes and whatever else the kims feel like doing but im sure when u camly expalin u came for the meth they will take u down and let u go about ur business ha right.

    ur tacky thoughess comment undermines everyone that has risked their lives, families, everything they had to escape. so instead of wanting to move there maybe u should be thankful cus by the grace of god u werent born there.

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