First North Korea ignored anti-nuke rules. Now it’s selling drugs, too?

He sees…new markets.
He sees…new markets.
Image: AP Photo/KCNA via KNS
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Some of North Korea’s diplomats posted in Eastern Europe have been sent abroad with drugs, according to a story in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, and told to raise $300,000 for the fatherland.

Under the guidance of Room 39, a secretive agency that managed the private coffers of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the North has been producing various types of illegal drugs and selling them abroad. South Korean authorities estimate North Korea’s annual output of illicit drugs amount to 3,000 kg that translate into revenues of between $100 million and $200 million.

Does this mean the sanctions are working?

Smuggling drugs using diplomatic means is such an attractive ruse that criminals have disguised drug shipments as diplomatic pouches. This isn’t even the first time that reports have surfaced of North Korea’s state-sponsored drug deals abroad: The country has a long history of exporting amphetamines to nearby China, tolerating and even directly supporting a fairly robust drug trade. Proving that either substance abuse or precipitation transcends culture, Chinese slang for crystal meth is also “ice,” and using it is “ice skating,” Quartz has confirmed with Eveline Chao, an expert in Mandarin slang.

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher attributes the drug-smuggling to the economic isolation imposed on North Korea by the international community for ignoring UN bans on nuclear and rocket testing. State-supported criminal enterprises fund the lifestyles of leader Kim Jong-un and other party elites, while meager state resources have left the country virtually dependent on China for subsistence. With the latest round of sanctions put into effect following a nuclear test that occurred earlier this year, China’s patience may be wearing thin, but it can do little to influence military decisions. Ironically, the Brookings Institute notes that

[I]f North Korea carries out a reform and opening policy in the near future, the China-North Korean border trade would grow and economic ties would be strengthened. As a result, the Chinese government will not only relax its control of the border area but also actively facilitate cross-border commerce. In such an environment, the volume of drug trafficking across the border into Northeast China and other Northeast Asian countries would quickly increase unless the DPRK were to take strict measures to eliminate drug production.

The news comes the same day South Korea and the United States sign a new contingency plan for mutual defense, designed to deter any North Korean aggression.