North Korea's Growing Meth Problem

The illicit drug trade is booming in towns along North Korea’s border with China as the cash-strapped country desperately looks for steady sources of income, according to a recent report by Newsweek.

“Selling ice is the easiest way to make money,” says Shin Dong Hyuk, who was born in a North Korean concentration camp in 1982 and escaped to South Korea in 2005. Every defector, he added, “knows about ice.”

The number of people addicted to methamphetamine is skyrocketing, according to the article. Many use the drug as a substitute for more expensive prescription drugs.

“People with chronic disease take it until they’re addicted,” says one worker for a South Korea-based NGO, who requested anonymity in order to avoid jeopardizing his work with defectors. “They take it for things like cancer. This drug is their sole form of medication,” says the NGO worker, who has interviewed hundreds of defectors in the past three years.

A former bicycle smuggler who defected in 2009 told NEWSWEEK of seeing a doctor administering meth to a friend’s sick father. “He took it and could speak well and move his hand again five minutes later. Because of this kind of effect, elderly people really took to this medicine.”

In addition, Newsweek said meth offers an escape that might not otherwise be possible.

As Shin puts it: “There’s so little hope in North Korea—that’s why ice is becoming popular. People have given up.”

The United States has many prescription drug addiction treatment programs that help those who are hooked on their painkillers or antidepressants. Other countries, however, have no programs in place for that specific addiction.