Drug Trafficking from North Korea: Implications for Chinese Policy

Despite many press reports, magazine articles, and academic analyses about drug production and trafficking by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) since the early 1990s, Chinese authorities have avoided acknowledgement of this fact – possibly due to political reasons. In China’s press reports, drug trafficking from North Korea is usually referred to as trafficking from an unidentified overseas country. But in July 2004 Chinese authorities officially recognized that relatively limited quantities of North Korean drugs, mostly methamphetamine (also called “ice”), were shipped into China. In recent years, drug trafficking from North Korea has posed a more and more serious threat to Northeast China, and will be a new challenge to Northeast Asia.

North Korean drug trafficking into Northeast China

Methamphetamine production in North Korea is reported to have started in 1996 after heavy rains decreased income from poppy production.[1] It is believed the most methamphetamines produced in North Korea are trafficked into Northeast China, then to Shandong, Tianjin, Beijing, and other interior provinces; a smaller percentage is smuggled into South Korea and Japan, where they turn a high profit. Yanbian Korean Autonomous Pefecture and Changbai Korean Autonomous County in China’s Jilin Province, and Dandong city in Liaoning Province, along the border with North Korea, have been identified as key transit points for North Korean drugs into China.

Yanbian shares a border of 522.5 kilometers with North Korea; over 1 million Korean Chinese live in the region, as well as 100,000 to 200,000 North Korean refugees. Geographical and ethnic-cultural-linguistic ties provide helpful networks for cross-border trafficking of drugs and illegal immigrants. Furthermore, drug trafficking groups from North Korea, China, and South Korea often cooperate on drug trafficking across the border. South Korea’s JoongAng Daily newspaper has even reported that a “drug trafficking triangle” has been established between them.[2]

Recently uncovered cases illustrate this trend. In October 2008, Baishan city border patrol agencies seized 5.4kg of 100 percent pure ice in Changbai Korean Autonomous County.[3] In July 2010, in the celebrated “5. 20” case, Yanbian border patrol agencies arrested 6 suspects from North Korea, including drug kingpin “Sister Kim,” and several Korean Chinese; seized 1.5 kg of ice; and confiscated RMB 132,000 (about US$19,300) of drug money and two cars.[4]

As China’s biggest border city on the Yalu River, opposite Sinuiju in North Korea, Dandong city in Liaoning Province is another major transshipment point for drug trafficking from North Korea into Northeast China. On December 23, 2004, Dandong border patrol agencies uncovered the largest drug trafficking operation from North Korea into China since this border patrol was established, seizing 13,775 MaGu tablets (in which the dominant ingredient is amphetamine), and arresting 4 suspects.[5] On February 17, 2005, Dandong law enforcement officials again seized 2,000 MDMA or called ecstasy tablets and 300 MaGu tablets from North Korea, and arrested 7 suspects.[6]

Jilin Province is not only the most important transshipment point for drugs from North Korea into China, but has itself become one of the largest markets in China for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). Chinese scholar Cui Junyong notes that over the last three to five years, most of the ice consumed in Yanbian has originated from North Korea. In Yanji, Yanbian’s capital, there were 44 registered drug addicts in 1991, but 2,090 in 2010.[7] In all of Jilin Province, as of early June 2010, there are more than 10,000 registered drug addicts, and the provincial Public Security Agency admits that the actual figures may be five or six times more than the official data. Across China, more than 70 percent of drug addicts abuse heroin, but in Jilin Province more than 90 percent of addicts abuse new synthetic drugs and ice in particular.

Potential drug crisis in Northeast Asia

Clearly, ATS from North Korea have become a threat to China in recent years. It is uncertain whether drug trafficking across the North Korea-China border is sponsored by the North Korean government.[8] But the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission (NNCC) has recognized the increasing threat of drug smuggling and use in the region, and in 2005 it opened a Northeastern battlefield fighting against cross-border drug trafficking. This strategy focuses on Jilin Province, which emphasizes counternarcotics cooperation between China’s Customs and Public Security agencies on deterrence, and patrols check along the China-North Korean border.

Similar to other issues including traditional and non-traditional security, Chinese counternarcotics policy relating to North Korea is often subordinated to the goal of maintaining a good overall relationship between two countries. The Chinese government implements a relatively tolerant policy toward the cross-border drug traffic, which could be very costly in the long run.

As drug abuse is established in Northeast China, increased demand will lead to a substantially increased supply of illicit drugs. This will stimulate drug production in North Korea, and will also attract other international drug trafficking organizations. Some have speculated that Afghan heroin smuggled into the Russian Federation will be re-trafficked into Northeast China via the China-Russia border.[9] If a northeast route for Afghan heroin is established, traffickers could also use it to target other countries in Northeast Asia.

The Northeast China market has also attracted domestic drug producers and traffickers from Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces. This poses the danger that ATS production factories from South China will be expanded and/or relocated to Northeast and North China. If this interaction between North China and South China in ATS production and trafficking is consolidated, China may become a major ATS consumer and producer, which would be a new threat to Northeast Asia.

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, if North Korea carries out a reform and opening policy in the near future, the China-North Korean border trade would grow and economic ties would be strengthened. As a result, the Chinese government will not only relax its control of the border area but also actively facilitate cross-border commerce. In such an environment, the volume of drug trafficking across the border into Northeast China and other Northeast Asian countries would quickly increase unless the DPRK were to take strict measures to eliminate drug production. China currently faces similar dilemmas in its southwestern and northwestern border regions.

Policy recommendations

Though Chinese authorities have begun to confront the issue, its measures have not been able stop or significantly interdict North Korean drug trafficking into China. What new steps should be taken to deal with this problem, or at least to avoid a new tragedy in Northeast Asia which might originate from North Korea?

First, the Chinese government should actively urge North Korea to undertake serious investigations into the scope and patterns of ATS production in North Korea and subsequent trafficking across the border. Whenever feasible, the Chinese government could provide technology and equipment assistance to North Korea, in order to help it control and ultimately eliminate drug production and trafficking.

Second, the Chinese government should promote the establishment of a regional counternarcotics cooperation mechanism and intelligence sharing system. Initially, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. could cooperate to stem outbound drug trafficking from North Korea and potentially from Russia, and thereby work to prevent the deterioration of drug problems in Northeast Asia. Ideally, North Korea itself could also be involved in this effort in the future.

Third, Chinese central, provincial, and local governments should strengthen counternarcotics law enforcement, border checkpoints and border control in Northeast China, and establish a network to monitor the illegal activities related to drug trafficking in the Korean Chinese and Uyghur Chinese communities that are often located in border regions that see the heaviest drug trafficking in China.

Fourth, Chinese authorities should enhance their education of the public on the harm caused by amphetamine-type stimulants, establish advanced drug treatment centers for ATS addicts. Without efforts to reduce the demand for illicit drugs, actions aimed at reducing the illicit drug supply will be doomed to failure. 

[1] Raphael F. Perl, “Drug Trafficking and North Korea: Issue for U.S. Policy,” CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, January 25, 2007, p. 9.

[2] In Sik Kang, “The Drug Trafficking Triangle between North Korean, Korean Chinese, and South Korean was Discovered,” JoongAng Daily (Korea), June 11, 2010.朝鲜人-中国朝鲜族-韩国人形成“毒品三角链朝鲜人-中国朝鲜族-韩国人形成“毒品三角链”

[3] Bi Jihong, “Jilin Province Cracked the Largest Number of Methamphetamine Trafficking Case,” Xin Wenhua Bao (Jilin), Feb. 18, 2009.

[4] “Jilin Province Border Patrol Agencies Cracked Drug Trafficking Case by Ministry of Public Security Supervision,” Xin Wenhua Bao (Jilin), August 31, 2010.

[5] “Abnormal Trafficking across Wire Netting: Investigation on Underground Trade between China and North Korea,” Nanfang Zhoumo, July 1, 2010

[6] Sun Muotong and Song Zheng, “Dandong Patrol Guard Seized 2,000 MDMA Tablets,” Renmin Gongan Bao, February 21, 2005, p. 3.

[7] Cui Junyong, “Drug Criminals Related to South Korean in Yanbian, China,” Xueshu Jiaoliu, No. 2 (2010), p. 55.

[8] The U.S. State Department’s 2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report says, “There is insufficient evidence to say with certainty that state-sponsored trafficking by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has stopped entirely in 2009. Nonetheless, the paucity of public reports of drug trafficking with a direct DPRK connection suggests strongly that such high-profile drug trafficking has either ceased, or has been reduced very sharply. Trafficking of methamphetamine along the DPRK-China border continues. There are indications that international drug traffickers can purchase methamphetamine in kilogram quantities in some of the major towns on the Chinese side of the DPRK-China border. Other criminality involving DPRK territory, such as counterfeit cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting/passing of U.S. currency (supernotes), continues.” See

[9] Niklas Swanström; Yin He, China’s War on Narcotics: Two Perspectives, Silk Road Paper, December 2006, p. 28.