Reports of drug use are frequently cited as evidence of North Korea’s societal distress, and it is easy to dismiss them in an age when drug use is a significant social issue in a majority of countries.
However, the ubiquity of one drug, methamphetamines or ‘bingdu’, in North Korea is hard to fully grasp from an outsider’s perspective.
Defectors who have recently arrived in South Korea say that women heavily burdened by both working in the jangmadang and maintaining a household often lean on the drug to counter the mental and physical stress; that students who fail to partake in it are often rendered outsiders; and that someone looking to bribe a problem away often turns to it.
This is not news, of course; the use of drugs in North Korea has been growing steadily throughout the 2000s, from Hamheung, which has the industrial infrastructure to make the drugs, to Party officials and the wealthy elite in Pyongyang, but by the end of the decade to far off border cities such as Sinuiju.
Defectors say that Kim Jong Il recognizes the seriousness of the situation and, from 2008, has decreed more than once that efforts to control drugs be extended, but most agree that drugs are already so widely available that even the authorities are powerless to change the situation.
A source from Yangkang Province told The Daily NK today, “Between students of 14-18, it’s so bad that if you don’t do ‘bingdu’ you are branded a loser. It was only small when it started in 2007, but at this point you would probably find 5 to 7 kids in any class of 30 doing it.”
The source explained that these students first get hold of the drugs by stealing a little bit of their parents’, but then later they pool what money they have to buy it in the market.
They are not able to afford the ‘A-class’ drug that adults take, since it sells for 100 Yuan per gram, instead purchasing a lower purity ‘B-class’ version for half that amount.
One defector who came to South Korea in 2009 from Chongjin in North Hamgyung Province said, “Each administrative unit in the city is made up of communities of about 1600 households, and of these households about 60% of young people aged 16 to 30 were taking drugs. It’s probably more now.”
According to the same source, drug addiction in North Korea is a more serious problem amongst women than men. He explained, “There is only a brief period of electricity at night in which women have to do sewing, make rice cakes and sweets […] If they take bingdu, they don’t feel tired and they feel more efficient, so that’s why many of them do it.”
Another defector from Hyesan in Yangkang Province said, “Because there is no medicine in North Korea, the thing they use as a cure-all is drugs.” they said.
So, despite the fact that one gram of ‘A-class’ bingdu goes for the price of twenty kilograms of rice, many of those who have the money find themselves spending it on drugs rather than food.
And just as it used to be polite as a greeting to offer a person a cigarette, now it is common in certain quarters to see people offering drugs instead. Drugs are even being employed as bribes.
The defector from Chongjin recalled, “Drugs are becoming totally mainstream now; they’re more widely available than food. When I was still in North Korea I used them as bribes, even to get into university.”
Meanwhile, of course, the negative effects of drug use on the brain development of teenagers pose a serious health problem. Dr. Cheong Jin Yong, a psychiatrist from Myongji Hospital in Seoul who also has experience working with defectors at Hanawon, told The Daily NK that the particularly unbalanced nutrition of North Korean adolescents means that drug use can stifle growth and have an effect on brain development for them in particular, leaving degraded concentration spans and memory functions.
Yet fortunately, those defectors who were drug users in North Korea do not generally have a drug problem by the time they arrive in South Korea, mostly because of the long, drawn-out process of defecting through Southeast Asia on the way to South Korea.
As a result, there have been very few cases of drug use uncovered involving defectors in South Korea. According to Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency’s International Crime Division, there have been no drug cases involving a defector since 2008.