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Story Publication logo June 20, 2011

Drug Smuggling and North Korea

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Cheap, available, and an antidote to hunger, crystal meth appears to be becoming the drug of choice...

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Multiple Authors
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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.

The Korean autonomous prefecture in China has its capital in Yanji, a city of lush desolation. About 500,000 people, half of them Chinese of Korean minority descent, live near the handful of city blocks full of coffee shops, hearing aid stores, dive bars, karaoke parlors, restaurants serving hunks of dog meat and other Korean specialties, all imbued with the impoverished architectural spirit of a third-tier Chinese city: buildings that seem to take inspiration from bathroom floor tiles or the movie sets of post-apocalyptic thrillers.

I went to Yanji to report on the crystal meth that made its way across the porous North Korean border, about 50 miles from the city, as well as to find out what I could about an alleged crystal meth epidemic in North Korea. Unlike the city of Dandong near the Yalu River further south, Yanji sits near the North Korean border defined by the Tumen, a relatively shallow river, frozen at winter, narrow and laxly policed at points, Yanji is a smugglers paradise. Pine mushrooms, counterfeit cigarettes, sacks of rice, and crystal meth all get carried across the border by North Korean and Chinese traders.

Before arriving, I spoke with dozens of Korea-watchers, and the one thing they agreed on is the difficulty of getting concrete information from North Korea.

One Chinese professor I spoke with, who had researched drug smuggling on the border, jovially insisted I was a spy and refused to speak to me for this story. "Read my article again," he suggested.

We called the local police's drug enforcement agency and asked to chat about drug problems in the area. The man who answered the phone, who refused to offer more of his name than "Mister Li," said that all leading officers were out and very busy these days and would not have time to talk with a Newsweek reporter about drugs.

What we do know, as Hazel Smith, a British North Korea expert puts is, is "there is a lot of evidence for a lot of nefarious things going on in the border."


Drug Crises


Drug Crises

Drug Crises

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