North Korean authorities have reportedly arrested workers at the Unha General Trading Company branch in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, for allegedly manufacturing and smuggling drugs to achieve their foreign currency quota.

A source in the province told Daily NK last Thursday that workers at the Unha General Trading Company were arrested in the middle of this month for involvement in the drug trade, apparently to pay this year’s foreign currency contribution to the “people’s economy.”

According to the source, with the state previously ordering that units unable to make this year’s foreign currency quota be barred from restarting trade when the border reopens, trading units have been mobilizing every means possible to achieve the quota.

Faced with pressure from above to satisfy its quota “at all costs” despite being able to do nothing due to the closure of the border, employees at the Unha General Trading Company began searching for ways to earn a bit of cash. Ultimately, they decided to manufacture drugs, setting up a manufacturing process and even smuggling the product.

“After holding discussions with several workers, the president of the Onsong branch of Unha General Trading Company brought in a drug manufacturer from Hamhung, feeding and housing him,” said the source. “They set up a lab, and for a year after the border closure, they diligently smuggled the drugs they manufactured, contributing foreign currency to the party.”

However, when nearby residents caught wind of what they were doing, the branch president and all others involved were arrested and taken to the provincial branch of the Ministry of State Security.

Musan County, North Hamgyong Province residence
Musan County, North Hamgyong Province. / Image: Daily NK

Provincial prosecutors believe mere trading company workers could not have possibly come up with such a scheme on their own, and that members of the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Social Security, and Onsong County officials were clearly involved. Working through local residents, law enforcement agents are reportedly rounding up and questioning other suspects.

“When the authorities searched their homes, they found big wads of dollars and yuan stored in kimchi pits and underground tunnels,” said the source. “Moreover, a serious issue is also arising with rumors going round that the trader who distributed the drugs is part of a group that helps North Koreans in China defect, so there are calls to determine where ‘dirty money’ infiltrated [the party].”

The case has yet to be concluded, but as the incident follows North Korea’s enacting of a law to prevent drug crimes, the suspects likely face severe punishment.

“With the law being enacted, those arrested will serve even longer prison terms, and they say even the implicated cadres won’t skate by this time,” said the source. “Judicial officers murmur that all of them will get life imprisonment or be executed.”

Early this month, the 15th plenary meeting of the 14th Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly adopted the “Law of the DPRK on Metal Industry, the Law of the DPRK on Chemical Industry, the Law of the DPRK on Machine-building Industry and the Law of the DPRK on the Prevention of Drug-related Crimes.” North Korean media reported that the law stipulated articles on “preventing violations of laws detrimental to the stability of the state and social system and the lives and health of the people” and “principled issues arising in enforcing the relevant laws.”

The adoption of a separate law despite pre-existing articles in North Korea’s criminal code punishing the illegal manufacture and trade of drugs seemingly demonstrates that the North Korean government is aiming to crack down even harder on drug-related activities.

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Jong So Yong is one of Daily NK's freelance reporters. Questions about her articles can be directed to