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

prevent cultivation.

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

North Korea.

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

Russian Mafia.

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

Il’s government.