Spreading Meth across the Chinese-North Korean Border

By | February 07, 2012 | 11 Comments

People and goods can and will always penetrate borders, even the ostensibly tightly-sealed DPRK boundary. In this essay, Jende Huang, Sino-NK’s Border Security Analyst, offers his take on the illicit drug trade between North Korea and China.While the laobaixing — represented, at least, by the taxi drivers in Tumen — know the problem exists, so far the Chinese government has been reluctant to seriously reprimand the DPRK for presiding over the production and export of bingdu (冰毒), or methamphetamine. Huang explains why–even as China confronts a growing drug problem–this silence previals, and reveals subtle shifts in Chinese policy toward its  neighbor. – Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

Spreading Meth across the Chinese-North Korean Border
by Jende Huang

There is a country, which shall remain nameless, that borders China. There is a problem in this unnamed country, a problem with methamphetamines. Colloquially known as crystal meth or ice, it is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system and is classified as part of the broader family of amphetamine-type stimulants. Lucrative for the seller and highly addictive for the user, this meth problem is spreading across the border and creating myriad issues for the PRC along the way. In a June 4, 2011 news article, for example, the English-language edition of Xinhua reported that Chinese authorities had busted a “cross-border drug smuggling ring” in Dandong. While Xinhua did not specify which border these drugs were crossing, the article did helpfully note that Dandong is “a Liaoning Province city neighboring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Bingdu in the DPRK | Though the North Korean government would never admit to outsiders that there is a drug problem in the country, the Daily NK has filed many reports over the past several years about this phenomena, suggesting that “bingdu” (what the North Koreans call meth) is available practically at epidemic levels inside the DPRK. Articles claim, among other things, that commodity prices rise and fall depending on the harshness of ongoing crackdowns on bingdu; that middle schoolers in Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province, were caught producing bingdu; that teenagers give it as a birthday gift to peers; and, most recently, that Kim Jong-Un had ordered a crackdown on bingdu producers, sellers, and users. Quotes from defectors and sources who spoke to the Daily NK report that anywhere from one-fourth to one-half of the population in North Korea are using the drug. And as reported by Isaac Stone Fish in Newsweek, bingdu is often taken as a replacement for medicine in the DPRK. The general consensus appears to be that the North Korean government has taken a backseat to its citizens when it comes to the production and distribution of meth. This includes possible collaboration between criminal gangs in the DPRK and China. As a Congressional Research Service report from 2007 noted,

Another question, yet unresolved, is the degree to which Pyongyang will be able to maintain control over drug smuggling—and other foreign currency generating—activities if they become more decentralized with more foreign criminal organizations and gangs participating. Deteriorating economic conditions and rising corruption among mid-level DPRK party functionaries threatened with declining lifestyles gives rise to speculation in the intelligence community that rogue operations constitute an increasing proportion of any current DPRK drug smuggling activity.

Bingdu Flows West | Almost a decade ago, in 2004, the Deputy Secretary General of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) and Director-General of the Narcotics Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security Yang Fengrui was asked about drug smuggling from the DPRK into China. Yang responded that, “there are indeed cases of drug trafficking from the DPRK to China. However, since there are more than 100,000 drug trafficking cases in China each year with only several are related to the DPRK, the proportion is very small. Most of the drugs that bring harm to China are from the Golden Triangle.” He then went on to list “Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), Nepal and some other countries” as the countries of origin of some recently captured drug traffickers. Although Yang sidestepped the impact of the North Korean drug trade, a recent report in the Dong-A Ilbo claims that the Chinese government (working with South Korean intelligence agencies) have seized 60 million USD worth of drugs from the DPRK in recent years.

The shift from denial to quiet interdiction most likely stems from two causes, the first being the abovementioned loss of production control from the North Korean government. The market forces that drive production in response to Chinese and other foreign demand over the past decade are causing larger and larger waves of meth to be washed up into northeastern China. The second cause could be driven by Beijing’s frustration with Pyongyang’s intransigence over the nuclear issue. Though unwilling to press the DPRK too hard, China may find cracking down on illicit drugs a more subtle way to exert pressure on the North Koreans, even if the bingdu isn’t directly coming from or benefiting the government.

Echoing China’s unwillingness to name the DPRK as a culprit in meth distribution, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s “World Drug Report 2011” says nothing about the DPRK or the impact of the North Korean drug trade upon China. Admittedly, the report leans heavily on statistical analysis and self-reporting from governments. Of course, a self-criticism of this sort will not be forthcoming from the DPRK, but considering the number of unofficial reports regarding the DPRK’s role in meth production and smuggling, the UN might have provided at least some anecdotal information. Instead, however, the report might mislead  readers into thinking that there are no issues with the use and export of meth in the DPRK.

Bingdu for All | Recent unconfirmed reports state that Chinese aid (in the form of rice and crude oil) has been sent to the DPRK. It cannot please Chinese officials, however, to see the North Koreans reciprocate the gesture by sending meth into Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces. By briefly highlighting Chinese efforts against drug abuse, the North Koreans appear to be delicately suggesting that they understand the potential severity of rampant levels of bingdu usage in the DPRK—either that or they actually have the gall to point out the drug abuse problems of the Chinese.

Does Chinese restraint in calling out Pyongyang over the issue only extend as far as obscure public statements? Are there serious behind-the-scenes discussions or cooperative moves going on between the two governments, or does Beijing ignore the issue so as to not antagonize the North Koreans? Though meth may not be the primary issue in the Sino-DPRK relationship, can China truly afford the added headache of dealing with a rising tide of drug addicts as it tries to maintain economic momentum and social stability?

A Chinese woman smokes bingdu, or crystal meth, in Yunnan province, PRC, near the Chinese border with Myanmar — Image courtesy Democratic Voice of Burma

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11 Comments

  1. Nice write-up.

    The North Koreans really call it bingdu (冰毒?)? Isn’t that a Chinese word?

    Is it easier to cook meth in North Korea and smuggle it in than cook it in China

    or

    are the North Koreans just smuggling the stuff in regardless and someone on the Chinese side says “well, we might as well sell this stuff.”

  2. The North Koreans do use the Chinese loanword Bingdu (빙두) to describe the drug. In the South it’s called “Pilipon” (필로폰), which incidentally is a Japanese loanword (originally “hiropon”/ヒロポン) Hiropon was the brand name under which the drug was sold before it was outlawed in Japan. A fun fact: methamphetamine is still legally available and occasionally prescribed by doctors in the US for treatment of severe narcolepsy and first line drug treatment-resistant cases of ADHD. It’s sold under the brand name Desoxyn. 

    Production of methamphetamine is relatively easy and the ingredients can be readily acquired in unregulated industrial settings (like NK factories). 

  3. Thanks man, appreciate the thoughtful reply.

    I, without full evidence, believe that ADHD is more of an industry than a disease. So yeah, doesn’t surprise me.

    From what little I know about meth, I’m still nonetheless surprised that you can acquire what you need in NK.

    Per my question, still though, how hard could it be to cook up some meth in a farmhouse in China vs. cooking it up in the farmhouse across the border and then smuggling it! I mean of course at some point the military is turning a blind eye, but still…

    Is it possible that the cooking of meth in NK lacks Chinese leadership? In other words, Chinese drug dealers are just distributing what smugglers bring them.

  4. double post. my bad. feel free to delete.

  5. Thanks J. Litt!

    There is another frequently used drug in the DPRK which is imported from China, I believe, a kind of opiate. It was cited in a large Amnesty 2010 report on the failures of the North Korean health care system; I think I’ll dig around and update subsequently. Thanks again for the expertise.

  6. My understanding is that a great deal of it is cooked/produced in Hamhung.

  7. I am always impressed by how immense Heilongjiang is; there is so much space in which one can do virtually anything, away from the law. It’s Dongbei with its bandits again, I suppose. Just a thought. Thanks for the comments, nepotist, always nice to have your critical eye.

  8. Adam, your oxymoron re: North Korean ‘health care system’ made me smile.

  9. Thanks, Michelle!

  10. As I said before, all of the compounds necessary to synthesize meth would be readily available in North Korean markets or could be pilfered from industrial sites. Things hydrochloric acid, diethyl ether, methanol, and red phosphorous have multiple, non-illicit uses in many Industrial and manufacturing processes. 

    Carrying out the reaction requires no special expertise or equipment; yes a farmer with no education could do it. The problem is the chemicals involved are highly volatile and, if not handled properly, could explode. I’m surprised we don’t hear more about “mysterious” explosions in the countryside or a surge in the number of chemical burn victims. This leads me to suspect that the meth is being synthesized under expert supervision and possibly with official sanction. 

  11. Re: official sanction, you can read: http://bit.ly/TAhzj9
    Although the piece doesn’t specifically mention meth production, there has been evidence to suggest meth comes under the commercial sphere mentioned in the article.

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