The Drug Trade is a Success for the North Korean Government, But Presents Tribulations for Others

By: Timothy Goo (Research Intern)


North Korea's Drug Development

In the 1970’s, North Korea’s drug operation began with the production of opium in the mountainous provinces of Hamgyong and Ryanggang. As opium output diminished in the 1990’s due to foul weather, North Korea’s cash-poor government primarily turned to a new drug source for income: methamphetamine - also referred to as “ice.” Examining the developments that occurred since their transition to methamphetamine, the ongoing operation to manufacture and export illicit drugs appears to be a massive success for the North Korean government. On the other hand, this North Korean operation thus presents tribulations for other states.


The Unique Quality of North Korea's Drug Operation

First, the North Korean drug trade can be viewed as successful because it operates differently from other drug businesses. Typically, drug businesses in other countries are controlled by underground organizations. However, the drug operation in North Korea’s case is predominantly managed through government-run trade companies or military authorities headquartered in Pyongyang. This means that without the the domestic condemnation from the North Korean state, the government-sponsored drug program can continue to exist; And there is no expectation that this drug operation will end anytime soon.


North Korea Finds a Way Around Sanctions

With the international crackdowns (e.g. economic sanctions instituted by the United Nations) against North Korea’s engagement in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,it has been increasingly burdensome for the North Korean government to fund their nuclear and missile program. The legal means of earning foreign currency to finance their weapons program have been curtailed through the prohibition of legal commercial activity by the United Nations. As a result, North Korea has relied on various illicit activities including drug manufacturing and exportation on an industrial scale. Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan, stated that “The North has a long track record of manufacturing and selling drugs overseas and it is a convenient fallback for the regime to ratchet up production when sanctions are stepped up and it is harder for them to export legitimate goods.” In other words, the drug operation presents an alternative and viable method for North Korea to fund their nuclear program amid the sanctions. The annual profit generated from illicit drugs ranges from approximately $500 million to $1 billion. Considering this, the ongoing drug trade highly benefits the North Korean government and therefore presents a logical reason for them to not terminate their valuable operation in the near future.


The Expansion of North Korea's Drug Operation

Lastly, the North Korean drug operation can be viewed as successful after seeing that it

has dramatically become more global over the years. Initially, it was presumed that North Korea only exported drugs to countries in their periphery, particularly because of their ties with crime syndicates such as the Chinese triads and Japanese Yakuza. Over time, the exports subsequently expanded to other parts of the world including, but not limited to, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, the United States, and western Africa. The seizure of drugs from North Korea have been occurring across the globe in the past couple of decades. For example, “In 2015, the Department of Justice secured guilty pleas from five people who tried to import 100 kilograms of methamphetamine from North Korea into the United States. And in 2010, China seized $60 million worth of drugs sent from North Korea that year.”


Solutions for the International Epidemic of North Korea’s Drug Expansion

With the global expansion of this drug operation, in addition to the substantial quantities being exported by North Korea, many states around the world are now having to deal with the epidemic of these drugs entering their territory. The ultimate and ideal solution to counteract this dilemma would be to disband North Korea’s drug operation. Unfortunately, countries have little to no authority in dissolving the illicit drug supply by North Korea because the operation is state-owned. Furthermore, the North Korean government claims that the state manufactures drugs solely for pharmaceutical purposes. Being unable to tackle the root of the problem through disbandment, North Korean drugs will continue to enter into other countries and cause a great deal of trouble for other states. Although it appears implausible to eradicate this drug operation for the time being, it is still in the international communities’ best interest to alleviate this tribulation with several immediate and temporary solutions. For instance, more international cooperation between countries (e.g. intelligence sharing) can assist in pinpointing outbound drug trafficking from North Korea. I also propose that there can be a further reinforcement of border checkpoints and border control. Overall, the circumstances and conditions pertaining to the North Korean drug trade make it a complex predicament for many states. It will intriguing to follow how this situation will be resolved in the future.

Saejowi Initiative for National Integration

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