This photograph shows a sign put up by the Chinese police at the North Korea-China border saying, “The Smuggling and Sale of Illicit Drugs is Prohibited.” China faces the threat of smuggling of stimulants and illicit drugs from North Korea. Taken by ISHIMARU Jiro in July 2017

ASIAPRESS has learned that the number of opium addicts in North Korea has recently increased dramatically, leading the authorities to take intensive measures to combat the epidemic. The Kim Jong-un regime acknowledged an outbreak of COVID-19 on May 12, leading to a surge in people using opium to treat the symptoms of the virus. (KANG Ji-won).

An ASIAPRESS reporting partner in the northern part of the country recently explained, “The number of opium users and dealers has increased dramatically, leading the police to announce through neighborhood watch units on September 10 that they will punish anyone carrying more than one gram of the substance, even if it’s to treat (symptoms of COVID-19).”

◆ Facing shortages of medications, people use opium to treat coronavirus symptoms

North Koreans have long used opium as a medication. The substance has been manufactured for medicinal use and poppies – where opium comes from – has also been a common plant grown in ordinary homes. North Korean society showed tolerance toward the use of opium, with only light punishments against users and dealers.

The rise in opium users can be traced back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. There were two reasons for the increase: 1) the halt in trade with China led to a shortage of various medications, forcing an increasing number of people to use opium as a medication to treat pain; and 2) the shortage of raw materials to make “ice” (a stimulant used widely in the country) due to the halt in international trade led drug dealers to turn to opium.

◆ Opium addicts miss work

An ASIAPRESS reporting partner in Yanggang Province explained, “There’s been a big increase in people using opium. When the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in May, dealers promoted (opium) as being effective against the virus, leading to a massive increase in users. The price of opium rose a great deal, but many people I know use it. There’s even people whose skin has boils or has hardened because they’ve gotten too many injections, and some people have become completely disabled.”

The price of opium has risen precipitously. In the past, one gram was just 20,000 won; now, it’s 35,000 per gram. Despite the rise in price, there’s a continue shortage of the substance.

※ 10,000 North Korean won equals 1.25 USD

“The increase in people using opium has led to more and more people missing work. Neighborhood watch units and workplaces have begun investigating people who miss work, visiting their homes to see if they have injection marks on their skin. If they are suspected of having been using opium, police units are called to conduct house searches.”

In the past, the police only lightly punished those using opium to treat illnesses; now, however, the massive increase in users has led the police to punish opium users at the same level they punish users of stimulants.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with its reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.