North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) set up cover companies to smuggle heroin and methamphetamines into neighboring countries including China, Japan and Vietnam.
North Korea has a long history of narcotics production and export. The country began producing synthetic methamphetamines in North Pyongyang and South Hamyong provinces in the mid 1990’s as an appetite suppressant during famine. The drug was also given to workers to speed up labor on construction sites. Having developed a local industry for the addictive stimulant, the regime quickly realized that it could be a good source of foreign exchange.
Cover companies and use of diplomats
Research by PP has found that from the mid 1990’s one of the main vehicles for the DPRK’s narcotics trade was a Pyongyang front company called Sujong Joint Venture Co. On the surface, Sujong was a harmless trading entity that exported mineral water and imported computers. In reality, Sujong was a government-owned cover company for smuggling narcotics. The organization was also known as the Crystal Trade Company (“Crystal” …. subtle right!). Sujong was operated by the MSS (then known as the DSS) under the control of the military leaders. In PP’s opinion its clear that Crystal’s authority to operate came right from the top of the government. For those in charge of the DPRK regime, the immorality of shipping drugs like heroin and crystal meth were not really as important as the funds that could be raised.
Two key people involved in Sujong’s deadly trade were company president Song Tae Bin Song and manager Kim Yoo Chul. Under cover of mineral water sales, Yoo Chul traveled a lot to China, Thailand and other countries across South East Asia to coordinate illicit narcotics trading. By all the accounts that PP can find, Yoo Chul was a well-connected individual within the North Korean elite. He even studied French at the International University of Foreign Studies in Pyongyang and worked as a researcher at the Juche Research Center before joining Sujong.
The DPRK did not seem to be concerned that it was sending drugs into countries that it was meant to be friendly with. Even more shockingly, North Korea used its official, accredited diplomats to carry the drugs. According to a Vietnamese analyst who spoke to PP, in 2015 the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs made plans to transport meth in to Hanoi to be distributed by its own diplomats. Profits from the sales would then be transported back to Pyongyang on official visits. Other incidents have also been well documented. For example, in 2003 Australian officials seized a North Korean vessel (the “Pong Su“) carrying heroin, while in 2012, a North Korean Embassy in Eastern Europe received a major drugs shipment with orders to sell the product and send the money home.
Showing the massive extent of the illicit activity, a US Congressional Research Report from January 2007 mentions at least 50 documented incidents of DPRK drug trafficking in more than 20 countries across the world. Many of which involved the arrest and detention of diplomats.
With low wages and constant pressure to generate money for the regime, North Korean diplomats often have little choice but to carry out criminal activity. PP knows that they don’t make much money – at one DPRK mission in South East Asia, the ambassador received $800 a month to cover all of the missions expenses. Others receive even less and resort to black market trading of cigarettes and alcohol as a result. While the regime has just recently asked its diplomats to scale down their involvement in illegal activities due to fear of expulsions, illegal smuggling remains an important source of funds.
With this level of financial pressure, and leadership that has no regard for human life, it is unsurprising that the DPRK turns to selling drugs like heroin and methamphetamines to raise money. North Korea made lots of money from selling these products into neighboring countries like China, Japan and Vietnam – who then had to deal with the human cost of the trade.