North Korea and Narcotics Trafficking: A View from the Inside
Publication: North Korea Review Volume: 1 Issue: 1
The details about North Korean involvement in international narcotics
trafficking have been reported in greater frequency in the West in the last
decade as North Korea struggles to delay its looming internal collapse. As
insider knowledge of these developments is rare, it is the purpose of this essay
to shed greater light on the motivations of the North Korean government in their
state-sponsored drug smuggling activities.
Before defecting to South Korea in the late 1990s, I worked in the North Korean
National Security Agency from 1983 until 1998. In this position, I learned of
and witnessed first-hand the drug trafficking activities of the North Korean
The production and trafficking of illegal drugs by the North Korean regime has
been much publicized for some time now. The April 2003 seizure by Australian
authorities of the North Korean ship Pongsu containing 50 kilograms of heroin is
indisputable proof that the North Korean regime has been busy exporting illegal
drugs as a means of generating state revenue.
North Korea began its secret program of illicit drug production in the late
1970’s in the mountainous Hamkyung and Yangkang provinces. Successful production
in these regions enabled the North Korean regime to begin producing and selling
drugs in earnest in the late 1980’s. In a sign of the strategic importance of
the narcotics program, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung toured Hamkyung-Bukdo
Province in the late 1980’s and designated the area around the town of Yonsah in
Hamkyung Province to be developed into an opium farm. Ironically, this region
also was used by the Japanese Colonial government as site for growing opium.
Desperately short of hard currency, Kim Il-Sung pursued a similar policy in
order to boost his cash-starved budget.
The local provincial party committee developed a secret, experimental opium farm
in Yonsah Town that was tightly guarded by North Korean security forces. Opium
production began on collective farms located in towns like Yonsah, Hweryung,
Moosan, and Onsung in Hamkyung-Bukdo Province. All opium produced at these farms
was sent to the government to be processed into heroin. The government referred
to these opium poppies as “broad bellflowers” in order to hide the operation
from the general public, but this was an open secret.
North Korea’s manufacturing production collapsed in the early 1990’s due to a
lack of raw materials, resulting in a sharp decline in exports. In an attempt to
fill this gap, the government exported mushrooms, medicinal herbs, and fish to
China, Japan, and South Korea. However, the regime quickly decided that the best
ways to bring in large sums of foreign currency were to sell drugs to other
countries and smuggle in used Japanese cars.
All of these activities came under the direct control and supervision of the
central government. In late 1997, the central government ordered all the local
collective farms to begin cultivating 10 chungbo (Korean land unit equal to
approximately 25 acres) of land for the production of poppies. However, the
Chinese government learned of the directive and dispatched reporters and police
to take pictures of the farms located near the Chinese border in an effort to
The opium produced on these farms is sent to pharmaceutical plants in the Nanam
area of Chungjin City in Hamkyung-Bukdo Province. There the opium is processed
and refined into heroin under the supervision of several drug experts who were
brought from Thailand to assist the North Korean government in its drug
production program. Unfortunately, these are not the only drug production
facilities in North Korea. There are unconfirmed reports that another opium
processing plant operates near the capital city of Pyongyang. These plants are
highly secret and are guarded and patrolled by armed guards from the National
Security and Intelligence Bureau. No outsiders are allowed in these facilities.
North Korea produces about one ton of heroin and methamphetamine (called
hiroppon in Korea) per month. Heroin is usually packaged in a box containing 330
grams (11.6 ounces) of the drug and marked with a Thai label. Methamphetamine is
packaged in a box containing one kilogram and typically has no label.
The principal export market for North Korean narcotics is Eurasia. Ironically,
one of the largest markets for North Korean narcotics exports is China. North
Korean narcotics are sold along the Chinese border for up to $10,000 per
kilogram. Drug smuggling by sea, however, brings a higher price because of the
greater risk involved. These drugs are sold for as much as $15,000 per kilogram.
North Korea sells these drugs through the Chinese border to China, Hong Kong,
Macao, and Russia. The regime also deals with international drug dealers on the
Yellow Sea and the Eastern Sea, whose primary market for the drugs is Japan.
Increasingly, the North Korean regime has used its diplomats as the core of its
international drug smuggling operation. Their diplomatic cover is a perfect
means to smuggle narcotics and other illicit drugs. In November 1996, a North
Korean diplomat stationed in Russia was caught by the Russian border police with
20 kilograms of illegal drugs. He later committed suicide after being sentenced
to prison. On one occasion, I personally caught a drug dealer who possessed
forty-seven kilograms of illegal drugs, and sent the drugs to the authorities. I
believe that the authorities merely sold the drugs through another dealer.
In December 2001, the South Korean government discovered one of the largest
caches of drugs in its history when authorities found a major shipment of
illegal drugs at the port of Pusan. Although they did not identify their
origins, it is almost certain that these drugs were smuggled into the port from
Increasingly, the North Korean government has begun to deal directly with
organized crime in an effort to bolster its foreign revenue. Organized crime
groups in Russia and Japan have been the principal targets for this cooperation.
Indeed, as the drug market expands, Pyongyang has begun dealing with
international drug dealers such as the notorious Japanese Yakuza, as well as the
The list of incidents of drug production and smuggling by the North Korean
regime is extensive. In July 1995, an agent of the National Security and
Intelligence Bureau of North Korea was caught by the Chinese police when he
tried to smuggle 500 kilograms of heroin into the country. In November 1996, a
North Korean lumberjack working in Russia was caught at Hassan Station in Russia
with 22 kilograms of opium. In May 1997, a North Korean businessman was arrested
in Dandung City, China, when he tried to sell 900 kilograms of methamphetamine.
In July 1997, a North Korean lumberjack was caught in Havarovsk, Russia trying
to sell 5 kilograms of opium. In January 1998, Russian police caught two North
Korean diplomats stationed in Mexico when they tried to smuggle 35 kilograms of
cocaine through the Russian Federation. In July 1998, two North Korean diplomats
stationed in Syria were arrested when they tried to smuggle 500,000 capsules of
psychotomimetics (stimulants) into that country.
The long-term outlook for North Korean involvement in international narcotics
trafficking is not promising. The North Korean regime is becoming increasingly
involved in the production and sales of illegal drugs in order to earn greater
amounts of foreign currency which otherwise would not be available to Kim Jong