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North Korea: Drugs Rampant, Even Among Teens

Categories: East Asia, North Korea, South Korea, Citizen Media, Disaster, Economics & Business, Health, Humanitarian Response, Labor, Politics, Refugees, Youth

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. [2]  [2]

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) [3]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 [4]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.’ [5] 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], [6] 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] [7]. (Posting No. 247, video currently unavailable)

Blogger Citrain64 posted an analysis of the reason for the  drugs outbreak [8]. 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. [9]