The Business of Ice: North Korea's Crystal Meth Trade


Sunset, Yanji. Fifty miles from the North Korean border, Yanji is a city of refugees, smugglers, opportunist businessmen and evangelical Christians in the market for North Korean souls. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Traffic intersection, Yanji. Large parts of Yanji still feature the soulless, Stalinist architecture ubiquitous in China before the country’s economic boom gathered speed in the 1990s. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Night scene, Yanji. The capital of the Korean autonomous prefecture in northeast China, near the North Korean border, Yanji has a sizable Korean population. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Mix Nightclub, Yanji. A recent crackdown drove the consumption of methamphetamines, known locally as ‘ice drug,’ deeper underground. A waiter told Newsweek of collecting money to help bribe his friend out of jail after he was arrested for dealing ice. “In China, you can do anything with money,” he said. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Mix Nightclub, Yanji. A young man smokes a cigarette between beers. “Usage is common,” one reveler at a nightspot called Chaos told Newsweek, cautioning “If you’re caught with more than 50 grams of ice they’ll kill you.” Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Rural Yanbian. The Yanbian Public Security Bureau Forced Isolation Drug Treatment Center houses a few hundred people, mostly ice users. The center is installing a computer communication system so that “the students of drug quitting,” as the center euphemistically refers to addicts, can apply to speak with their family members. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Rural Yanbian. Yanbian Public Security Bureau Forced Isolation Drug Treatment Center. A Korean Chinese who used to work at the center told Newsweek he started seeing ice addicts in 1995. North Koreans interviewed for this article said ice started appearing in their domestic market in the late 1990s, after devastating rains damaged the poppy crop. “We started hearing rumors in 1998,” says one defector living in South Korea. “But there was nothing on the scale there is now; it wasn’t like people you knew were addicted.” Jilin Province, China. 2011.


Mountains outside of Yanji. Thousands of North Koreans are thought to be hiding in remote areas like these mountains in northeast China, some smuggling goods like crystal meth across the border, some waiting to escape to South Korea via sympathetic countries like Mongolia or Thailand. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


A woman crosses a river in front of a church, Yanji. Missionaries from the West and South Korea clandestinely visit North Korea from their bases in Yanji and the surrounding region, bringing food and the Gospel to a country lacking both. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


North Korean waitress, Yanji. Many North Koreans, like this one, live legally in Yanji; many more hide out in and around the city, like one who fled because he didn’t want to be a burden on his family. “My daughter can barely feed herself, how can she feed me?” he told Newsweek. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


The Tumen River, separating China (near side) and North Korea (far side), with North Korea in the distance. Estimates of ice usage from defectors, experts, and NGO workers ranged widely. A member of a South Korean based NGO that works on North Korea issues, who claims to have interviewed over 500 defectors in the past three years, estimates that one in two North Koreans have tried ice at one point in their life. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


The Tumen River, which separates China (near side) and North Korea (far side). One woman told Newsweek she smuggles ice to a trader in the middle of this river; which demarcates the northern and more accessible border crossing point between the two countries; it’s frozen during the winter and often laxly patrolled. Jilin Province, China. 2011.


North Korean Restaurant, Yanji. A North Korean woman gets ready to perform to an audience of Chinese and South Koreans. North Korea is the most isolated, restricted country in the world, which made reporting a story on a taboo subject extremely difficult. Few people, North Korean or foreign, are permitted to travel freely around the country. The only person Newsweek spoke with who claimed the ability to do so, an evangelical Christian, described “miserable starvation, miserable agony” but refused to elaborate on drugs. That said, by cobbling together defector testimony, interviews with experts and on the ground reporting, it’s possible to create a partial picture of the drug’s usage in the Hermit Kingdom. Jilin Province, China. 2011.

Since devastating rains in the late 1990’s destroyed their poppy crop, North Korean enterprises have turned to the production of crystal meth as their export drug of choice. Much of the drug passes through the DPRK’s porous border with northeast China, especially the Korean autonomous prefecture in the province of Jilin, which has become one of the country’s largest markets for what the Chinese call ice.