Inside North Korea's Meth Empire


By Anthony Romanelli, executive opinion editor 
Faced with a new round of sanctions that hit the country earlier this year, North Korea is short on ways to make money. Now in a period of economic crisis, North Korea seems willing to negotiate at last, but one aspect of the dictatorship remains untouched. No sanctions have done any lasting damage to Bureau 39, a shadowy institution dedicated to managing the supreme leader’s private slush fund.
Unlike the rest of North Korea, Bureau 39’s “by any means necessary” mandate allows it to cut legal corners in staying afloat during this crisis. According to defectors, meth dealing is the primary source of revenue for Bureau 39. The United States and their allies need to shift pressure onto Bureau 39 to prevent their drug dealing in our country and around the world.
Meth was chosen as the main revenue drug because unlike cocaine or heroin, meth is entirely man-made and doesn’t require fields of inedible crops to produce. Meth is also already popular in North Korea, and the country is the second largest producer of the drug after Myanmar. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports claim that some of those drugs are sent to the United States, and in order to prevent a new front in the War on Drugs, it’s important to address the source.
The only legal thing worth buying from North Korea is coal, and thus, most of the targeted sanctions have been focused on mining businesses. For the most part, however, Bureau 39’s front companies have remained untouched. Now that the country is on the verge of collapse, Bureau 39 has become desperate, resorting to crime to keep money flowing in.
According to former member Ri Jong-ho, who spoke to the South China Morning Post after defecting to the United States in 2014, Bureau 39 has been involved in insurance fraud and money laundering. The group is also heavily involved in counterfeiting, anything from U.S. dollars to cigarettes and even Viagra tablets. According to Ri, after they briefly attempted meth production in the 1970s, Bureau 39 has tried again, this time outsourcing all production to a nameless crime syndicate based in Thailand.
This syndicate receives a cut of the profits and Bureau 39’s agents, mostly diplomats, smuggle them to other countries via North Korea’s embassies or directly across the border into China. A DEA raid conducted alongside Chinese authorities in 2016 found nearly 33 pounds of 99 percent pure meth in the possession of North Korean officials. It was revealed later that these drugs were destined for the U.S..
In North Korea, drug laws are far more lax than in almost any other country. Marijuana, for example, has never be outlawed in the country at any point. Meth, called “ice” in North Korea, is still illegal, but the law is poorly enforced. Meth dealing is most common in the northern provinces and around the city of Hamhung. According to the South China Morning Post, Hamhung was once the hub of the country’s pharmaceutical industry, and when that industry collapsed in the 2000s, a vast number of unemployed doctors and chemists had to turn to drug dealing to support their families.
North Korean meth dealers advertise it as a miracle drug, and “ice” is used for everything from curing headaches to curbing appetites. According to an anonymous meth dealer on the Chinese border who spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald, meth is “like drinking coffee, but ice is so much better. It’s a polite way to greet guests by offering them a sniff.” Many dealers make the drug in their own bathtubs and trade it domestically and internationally alike. Police in China’s northern provinces seized $55 million worth in 2016 alone.
A lot of the attention on North Korea lately is on their nuclear weapons, which may or may not ever be used, but their state-sponsored meth is already out of the country and is actively harming people as we speak. If the international community places a chokehold on what few sources of revenue they have left, Bureau 39 is bound to get desperate and make a mistake. What makes Bureau 39 and their meth empire so important to target is their duty as the supreme leader’s personal fund. Hitting Kim Jong-un directly in his pocket is bound to force his hand, de-escalate the missile crisis and keep Bureau 39’s drugs off the streets both here and abroad.