This picture shows a sign put up by the Chinese authorities on the border that reads: “Smuggling and the Sale of Illicit Drug Prohibited.” China was faced with the threat posed by stimulants and illicit drugs smuggled in from North Korea. Taken by ISHIMARU Jiro in July 2017.

Rising addiction to opium has recently become a social problem in North Korea, leading the national police agency to intensify its crackdowns on the use and distribution of the drug. A reporting partner in the northern part of the country gave the following report in mid-October. (KANG Ji-won)

◆ Stimulants no longer available due to halt in import of raw materials from China

Opium poppy has long been used in North Korea for medicinal purposes. In many cases, people would cultivate opium poppy in their house gardens. In general, North Korean society’s view of the use of opium was so lenient that the government only handed out light punishments; as a result, opium addiction was not particularly a social problem.

The rapid rise in opium addiction began after the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. There were two reasons for this. The first was that stimulants, which had long been widely used in North Korea, could no longer be made due to the halt in trade of raw materials from China. As a result, smugglers actively began to distribute opium to replace stimulants.

Second, the rise in opium addiction rose after opium began to be used as a replacement for pain and fever reducers as COVID-19 spread in the country in May 2022. In response, the national police agency conducted widespread crackdowns to control the spread of the drug.

◆ Spike in opium prices as addicts increase

However, there appears to be a different reason for the recent spread of opium use. The country’s economy is in disarray, and there has been an increase in the number of people turning to the illegal manufacturing and smuggling of opium to earn cash. The reporting partner told ASIAPRESS:

“In the past, there were a lot of needles available (to inject opium), but these days people are creating and selling opium that can be consumed with alcohol. The police is conducting an intense crackdown on the cultivation of opium poppy in farm fields and the sale of the drug for medicinal purposes.”

The price of opium has also increased. The reporting partner said that one gram of opium went for 20,000 North Korean won before the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, during the height of the pandemic in North Korea, it cost 3-50,000 won. These days, 300 grams of liquid-based opium costs 70,000 won, while five injections cost 100,000 won. The price of opium has increased with the rise in addicts.

※ 1USD equals around 8500 North Korean won.

In particular, with the spread of smuggling of opium in major cities like Chongjin and Hamhung, the police are conducting intense crackdowns on medicine factories known to secretly manufacture opium products.

◆ Neighbor with glazed-over eyes unable to sit properly

“They say that if you take opium, you’ll sleep like you’re dead, and some people suffer from ungovernable emotional excess as a symptom of taking the drug. I’ve seen people around my apartment who have taken opium who have glazed-over eyes and are unable to sit properly.

“There have also been incidents that have occurred due to opium use. Someone in a nearby apartment took opium and fell out of their apartment in the middle of the night, breaking their hands and legs. The person just laughed, however, and simply fell asleep (where they had fallen). They were taken to a hospital and are now under investigation by the police. I’ve heard from an official that 14 people have been arrested for using opium recently in Hyesan.”

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

Map of North Korea ( ASIAPRESS)