Back in December 2009, authorities cracked down on a colossal drug operation in southwestern China, where they busted 85 people in connection to manufacturing and distributing methamphetamines across the nation. In their eight illegal production labs, the police found enough chemicals to manufacture up to 10 tons of crystal meth, which has a street value of 2.17 billion RMB ($318 million).
But China’s war on drugs is far from over, as it seems.
The spotlight has recently shifted to the city of Yanji, located in eastern Jilin province in Northeast China.
Twenty years ago, Yanji had only 44 registered drug addicts. Last year, the city registered almost 2,100 drug addicts, according to a 2010 Brookings Institution report, with more than 90 percent of them addicted to meth or similar synthetic drugs. Local officials acknowledge that this is very likely a gross undercount and that the actual number may be five or six times higher. “Jilin Province is not only the most important transshipment point for drugs from North Korea into China, but has itself become one of the largest markets in China for amphetamine-type stimulants,” the Brookings report said. (Newsweek)
As it turns out, meth (or “ice”) abusers in Yanji, which is just 50 miles from the river border between China and North Korea, seem to be using their remote location to their fullest advantage, and local authorities have started to take note.
Chinese authorities recently conducted a provincewide crackdown, code-named Strong Wind, and earlier this month in Dandong, they caught 10 suspects — all Chinese citizens — smuggling 450 grams of meth from their Northern neighbor.
While a substantial amount of evidence points to North Korea as Yanji’s main source of meth, the Chinese government has been wary about putting one of its most valued allies on blast. Reports on drug crackdowns in Jilin province shirk calling out North Korea, ambiguously referring to them as a “border country”: “We don’t publicize” the drugs coming from North Korea because it would touch on “the good relationship between China and North Korea,” an official, requesting anonymity, from Jilin’s anti-drug unit told Newsweek.
However, this rampant issue of cross-border drug trafficking seems to point to a much larger problem at hand: the level of destitution that inevitably leads to drug addictions among many people in North Korea.
Inside North Korea, observers say, many use meth in place of expensive and hard-to-obtain medicine. “People with chronic disease take it until they’re addicted,” says one worker for a South Korea-based NGO, who requested anonymity in order to avoid jeopardizing his work with defectors. “They take it for things like cancer. This drug is their sole form of medication,” says the NGO worker, who has interviewed hundreds of defectors in the past three years. A former bicycle smuggler who defected in 2009 told NEWSWEEK of seeing a doctor administering meth to a friend’s sick father. “He took it and could speak well and move his hand again five minutes later. Because of this kind of effect, elderly people really took to this medicine.”
Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Rimjin-gang, a magazine about North Korea and reported by people inside the country but published in Japan, says he has seen several North Koreans take meth to relieve stress and fatigue, including his former North Korean business partner. “He didn’t start taking it as a drug but as a medicine,” Ishimaru says.
The drug also offers an escape that might not otherwise be possible. As Shin puts it: “There’s so little hope in North Korea—that’s why ice is becoming popular. People have given up.” (Newsweek)
In addition, there is speculation that the government may somehow be involved in North Korea’s drug trafficking scene — as it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in the 1970s, the state grew opium, and according to an escapee from a North Korean concentration camp, prisoners were ordered to attend to the crops.
A former school principal in North Pyongan province interviewed by NEWSWEEK says that, on government orders, he directed his students to plant opium from 1984 to 1991. “Throughout the country, schools were given plots of land to grow opium on. The stuff the government owned they secretly sent out of the country.” The teacher says that, during harvest, students would steal part of the crop to sell. (Newsweek)
According to a 2008 report to Congress, there was strong evidence that the government was involved in the production and trafficking of illicit drugs, but a two-year investigation as revealed in an International Narcotics Control Strategy Report to Congress this year could not confirm any instances of “large-scale drug trafficking” involving the state.
To make matters even more befuddling, the North Korean government has announced an anti-drug campaign, seemingly putting effort into curtailing the rampant drug use of its constituents.
Is this an authentic move in concern for the country’s growing number of drug addicts, or is NK putting on an act for the world stage?
You take your pick.
By Esther Kang