Squeezing the Walter Whites of Pyongyang

on May 5 | in Asia-Pacific, Narcotics

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In some cultures, it’s appropriate to offer a houseguest a cup of tea. In other places, it’s coffee. But according to some North Korean defectors, it’s becoming increasingly customary in Pyongyang to ask “han ko hahl lae?” or, “Do you want a snort [of meth]?”

Each year, the State Department publishes the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), giving an update on foreign countries’ efforts to reduce the production, trafficking, and use of illicit narcotics. This year’s INCSR noted an increase in North Korea’s production and use of illegal drugs, in particular, methamphetamines or “ice.” We can safely assume that the money will be used to fund Pyongyang’s not-so-honorable activities, such as its WMD program. The US intelligence community and its international partners need to bolster their efforts to identify and restrict the activities of North Korean drug networks and transactions, thereby cutting off a major source of revenue for the Kim Jong Un regime.

North Korea’s drug production began in the 1970s and gained real traction following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kim regime, unable to sustain itself, encouraged the North Korean population to cultivate poppies in communal farms. Initially, drug experimentation revolved primarily within the North’s elite circles, as heroin was too expensive for ordinary North Koreans. Later, methamphetamines were introduced to the country and slowly spread to the general population.

Recognizing the stimulant ingredient in meth, the North Korean military apparently had planned to distribute this to soldiers during wartime as a hallucinogen so that its troops, under the illusion of having an immense amount of strength, could fight “fanatically” in these battles. The North Korean sports industry also took note, giving meth to boxers, soccer players, and judo artists so that they can (falsely) increase their endurance for another six to eight hours of practice or during a match.

If drug production and use were primarily confined within North Korea’s borders, it would just be a national problem. But it’s become a serious transnational drug trafficking issue, as North Korean-made illegal substances are finding their way across state lines. With North Koreans frequently traveling along the Chinese border and robust trade taking place between the two countries, DPRK drug dealers can easily transport and sell the goods to Chinese merchants and ordinary citizens. Chinese authorities are enforcing strict surveillance along the DPRK-China border for illegal substances entering the country, but it’s unclear if this is having a real effect.

North Korean drugs are also making its way to other parts of the globe. In 2013, for instance, five drug smugglers of Chinese, British, and Thai origin were extradited to the U.S. in a plot to traffic over 200 pounds of North Korean crystal meth to the United States. In October 2014, five North Koreans — including some members of the elite — were caught selling bootleg liquor and drugs in the Middle East.

Unable to generate enough foreign currency for the regime through their businesses, many North Koreans are pressured to sell illegal drugs to make money on behalf of the DPRK leadership. Several years ago, Pyongyang reportedly sent a large amount of illegal drugs to its embassy in an East European country, ordering diplomats to sell the drugs for cash by a certain time. The regime had planned to use the cash to prepare for Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebration. Each diplomat was expected to raise $300,000 by 15 April 2012 – Kim’s 100th anniversary — to prove his loyalty to the regime.

Separately, each embassy is expected to send back $100,000 per year to North Korea. In 2003, the Australian navy seized North Korean vessel Pong Su, which carried 150 kilograms of heroin. Given what we know about North Korea’s financial situation, it’s unsurprising its diplomats and businessmen are resorting to drug trafficking to meet their cash quotas to send back to their home country.

Clearly, the drug revenues are put into the coffers to support Kim Jong Un and his cronies’ grip on power. In 2013, South Korean authorities estimated North Korea’s drug production at 3,000 kilograms, which could potentially generate between $100 million and $200 million of revenue. Of course, much of this money is difficult to trace.

North Korea’s drug problem poses serious security and intelligence implications for the U.S. Kim Jong Un will just use these funds to purchase more nuclear and missile technology and disrupt stability in the Northeast Asia. So long as North Korea has the means to endlessly generate more funds, the U.S. and the international community will have to deal with this problematic state and its violent outbursts.

Diplomatic channels are obviously important to maintain dialogue with the North Koreans, and we should continue to talk with our South Korean, Japanese and Chinese partners on key security challenges. But in addition to talk, we need enforceable measures to hold the Kim regime accountable while further restricting its accesses to provocative, destabilizing activities such as its nuclear and WMD programs.

The intelligence community has a role here. It should work closely with partner services to identify the groups and individuals involved in North Korea’s narcotics web — and clamp down on their activities. More robust intelligence sharing on Pyongyang’s drug activities with countries like China is one step. We should also capitalize upon the strengths, capabilities, and accesses of each intelligence service to develop an effective, actionable intelligence strategy to crack down on Pyongyang’s narcotics industry.

More broadly, the U.S. should enforce stricter more tangible punishments on North Korean individuals, organizations, and front companies involved in the drug trade so the regime will no longer have these options to generate revenue. Sanctions, trade and travel bans are a few ways to hold the North accountable for its bad behavior.

There’s potential to close off a robust funding source for the Kim regime’s selection of disruptive maneuvers here, and we would be amiss to overlook North Korea’s drug problem as a mere public health issue. It’s time to put Pyongyang’s Walter Whites out of business.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics, decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank.

photo:Walter White al carrer d’Antoni Suárez, València, by Joanbanjo (Wikicommons)

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One Response to Squeezing the Walter Whites of Pyongyang

  1. […] Pyongyang, we say this because we care — we think you have a drug problem. At Overt Action, Soo Kim dives into a growing issue in North Korea: meth. Not only is domestic consumption on the rise, but increased production for trafficking and […]

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