North Koreans Substituting Crystal Meth for Medication

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: Another country that likes grass? North Korea. Really. Opium is also big there, but increasingly the drug of choice and a major concern for the hermit kingdom is crystal meth. Jason Strother wrote about North Korea's crystal meth habit for the Wall Street Journal and, Jason, you tell the story of a man who defected across the border of North Korea and China and he got strength for his daring escape by using crystal meth, but I imagine he's not a representative user in North Korea. Who is though?

Jason Strother: Well, this man used it to get him across the frozen Tumen River, but many people in the north are using it for medicinal purposes. Pretty much the hospital systems have broken down, they don't have medications. People are taking it to overcome any sort of ailments and also they're even using it for cosmetic purposes. I talked with the North Korean defector, a female, who told me that her mother had tried convincing her to use a watered-down crystal meth solution to clear up her acne. So it's pretty much regarded as a cure-all.

Werman: And for the people who get addicted? I mean are we talking a lot of people? And what happens to them?

Strother: A researcher who wrote one of the first real studies to try to put a number on how widespread crystal meth is in north says anywhere between forty and fifty percent of people living in the northern border region between North Korea and China are addicted to crystal meth.

Werman: And did he talk about what the effects are on society and they villages they're living in?

Strother: They describe it as being widespread, that everyone from middle school students up to government officials are using it. One of the defectors I spoke with says that it's very easy just to walk down the street back in his hometown and find people selling it on the streets, law-enforcement pretty much ignoring it.

Werman: Now, that report came out in a journal called "The North Korean Review" and as many as fifty percent people addicted to crystal meth. That's shocking, but even more shocking is that one of the co-authors said that almost every adult in those northern areas of North Korea have tried crystal meth. Does that seem plausible?

Strother: I think it's reflective, Marco, of the breakdown of all social order in North Korea. There's the absence of rule of law, there's very little for North Korean people to turn to for whether it be medicinal help or just to overcome starvation. So they're using crystal meth just to cope.

Werman: Give us some of the background here, Jason. Where do people get the drug from? Are there underground labs in North Korea producing crystal meth?

Strother: There's a bit of a history to this, Marco. The North Korean regime was sponsoring crystal meth production starting in the early 2000s, but that dried up and it has now gone into home kitchens. People who learned how to cook meth from the government labs are now bringing it home. They're making it out in the countryside and then selling it.

Werman: I mean it's an illegal drug here in the US. Is crystal meth not illegal in North Korea?

Strother: Technically it is illegal, but it's so widespread that everyone is using it – police officials, government officials, border guards, you name it, that there's no incentive to actually enforce those laws.

Werman: And how are they consuming it? Are they snorting it? Or are they smoking it?

Strother: Oh, you know, Marco, I asked one of the defectors I interviewed how did he take it and, imagine this, we were sitting in a cafe in the middle of Gangnam in Seoul, having our ice lattes. He picks up the plastic cup and holds it up kinda like a bong, he mimics with one hand lighting it and then inhaling the smoke through the straw into his nose. So they're not taking it orally like the mode of choice in the US. They take it nasally because it gives them a bigger rush.

Werman: Reporter Jason Strother in Seoul who wrote about North Korea's crystal meth habit for the Wall Street Journal. Jason, always good to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Strother: Thank you, Marco.