Politicians agree that one of the best ways to shut down North Korean’s nuclear and missile program is through economic sanctions. However, according to an article published last month by CNN.com, the Congressional Research Service estimated in 2008 that North Korea could earn from $500 million to $1 billion from illicit activities. Some of this money is earned through narcotics trafficking and a great amount of meth-amphetamine also passes between North Korea and China, its biggest customer.
According to the CNN article, a man by the name of Ri Jong Ho, who recently defected from North Korea, was privy to some of the illicit activity North Korea engages in. He worked for ‘Office 39’ for decades and called it “a slush-fund for the leader and the leadership.” Workers, like Ho, who bring in money for the regime are often given many special privileges and access to the outside world, mainly in China. Ho denies that he personally participated in any illicit activities in Office 39, but admits that they do occur. The U.S. Treasury Department has accused Office 39 of engaging in illegal practices and claims that it earns foreign currency through various means such as hacking banks, creating counterfeit currency and narcotics trafficking.
Since the 1970’s, North Korea has had poppy farms and exported the narcotics made from them into China, but after floods and major agricultural problems beset the farms, North Koreans took to manufacturing meth as an additional drug it could export. The daily Beast reports, “China has a major meth problem. It mostly comes from North Korea and its been flooding northeastern provinces for years.”
China, which is separated from North Korea by only a river, receives smuggled goods mainly through ships claiming to have legitimate cargo, or even small fishing boats, which are harder to patrol.
Brendan Hong, from the daily Beast, says “I have seen workers abuse [meth] in Chinese electronics factories so they can stay awake when trudging through unending shifts. Cam girls (models who perform or strip online for a fee) and karaoke hostesses smoke it with their clients, who call the practice, ‘ice-skating.'” When there have been crackdowns by the Chinese government, businessmen and even Chinese celebrities have admitted to using meth to get through the day. For the most part though, China’s authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge the cross-border drug dealings with its close ally.
In North Korea itself, Hong says, “[Meth] suited the regime’s need to raise large amounts of foreign currency, and domestic use of meth killed the actual, physical hunger of a starving population.” According to an article by asiapundits, “It seems that there is money being made from this human tragedy on both sides of the border.”
Hong says, “At home, North Koreans might see meth as something of a luxury. During Chuseok, a festival to give thanks for bountiful harvests that doubles in the North as a chance to offer bribes, beef and meth were popular gifts for officials.
The North Korean government, in spite of its ideology as masters of “the original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought” and rigid Stalinist political system, seems to have taken a rather loose attitude to all the drug smuggling that goes on at its border with China and mostly ignores the epidemic rates of drug addiction among its own people.
Despite international attempts at sanctions and China drastically reducing their reliance on North Korean coal, the fact that the regime is making so much money illegally means that economic sanctions may not have the desired effect whatsoever.