North Korea Has a Meth Problem

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Though it wasn’t featured in VICE’s televised trip there, North Koreans’ preference for crystal meth became apparent in the early aughts when poppy fields providing the country with opium on its way to China dried up. These days, the stuff known as “bingdu” (and, unsurprisingly “ice”) does pretty well for itself in the Democratic People's Republic, claiming upwards of half the overall residential population's users. According to The Wall Street Journal however, North Korean nationals also use the stuff to keep themselves focused and awake when fleeing, often leaving behind the nasty habit upon entering the free world.

A 25-year-old man who used the drug as means of getting himself over the border into China explained:

“I inhaled about ten hits before I went to the [frozen Tumen River.] I felt really focused, all I could think was go, go, go. I didn’t sleep for two days after that...I wouldn’t do it again, even if I had the chance. My experimenting days are over.”

While his could easily be considered a success story, those times when North Koreans don’t kick meth are the subject a new paper from the Ministry of Unification’s Hanawon resettlement facility. Psychiatrist Jeon Jin-young writes that as with meth addicts in other parts of the world: "self-diagnosis, doctor shopping and abuse of prescription medication, including sleeping pills, is a growing trend within South Korea’s defector community of over 25,000.” Similarly, Kim Young-il, the head of a Seoul-based refugee association called PSCORE, adds that they rely on “sleeping pills off the black market as a counterbalance to the drug.”

Both in and out of the country, many North Koreans see meth as a social experience and don’t consider the drug addicting. Another spring 2013 study shed light on crystal meth’s prevalence, estimating that in the northern area of the country “40 to 50 percent are seriously addicted to the drug” as production moves from government owned factories to privately run underground laboratories, “home kitchens,” and (possibly) RVs in the wilderness.