North Korean defectors are going to prison for drugs, and it’s part of a larger problem

Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

As more North Korean defectors make their way into their southern counterpart, one would think that that life in South Korea would be rife with opportunity when compared to the North.

A recent parliamentary report from Rep. Kang Chang-il of the Minjoo Party of Korea, however, provided evidence that this may not always be the case. According to Yonhap News, crimes involving drugs have been the number one factor for the incarceration of North Korean defectors.

From the start of this year to July, about 815 defectors were estimated by the Unification Ministry to have left North Korea — a 15% increase from 2015. And as of late-August, 129 North Korean defectors were reported to be imprisoned — a nearly 40% increase from 5 years ago.

Of the 129 imprisoned defectors, 38 of them were convicted of drug-related crimes.

“Under the burden of livelihood difficulties and homesickness, more defectors tend to get involved in crimes with the number of defector prisoners on the rise,” Kang said in Yonhap News. “There’s pressing need for a system that consistently provides crime prevention education and job consulting to defectors, especially as the population of North Korean defectors in South Korea is nearing 30,000.”

In a Wall Street Journal article, North Korean defectors also confirmed accounts of past drug use in North Korea; however, it remained unclear how they managed to refrain from its continued use. Prof. Kim, a former Unification Ministry official, explained that some of the defectors failed to acknowledge the addictive qualities of methamphetamine.

“They say you can stop it whenever you want. All you need to do is sleep all day long, for three or four days,” Kim stated in The Wall Street Journal.

Traditionally, drug-related crimes in South Korea have been relatively low. Although the US Department of State reports that an “undetermined quantity of narcotics is smuggled through South Korea to Japan and other countries,” narcotics production and abuse has been deemed “not a major problem.”

North Koreans, on the other hand, are invested in the proliferation of narcotics. According to a study by Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an illicit hub of activity has emerged beyond the control of the North Korean regime.

Having been originally funded and manufactured by the government after a severe famine and economic hardships, substances like opium were required by the regime to be grown by farmers in the 1970s.

Since then, the country has eased its control by closing state-sponsored labs in an attempt to show the world that it was no longer a player in the production of narcotics. After these reforms, however, private production of the drugs seems to have increased, and what was once a state-run industry is now state-tolerated.

Testimonies from defectors and sources in Pyongyang confirm that methamphetamines have been habitually used by the populace — even going as far to say that construction project managers were issuing the drug, often called “ice,” to their workers in order to speed up construction.

Although North Korean officials continue to deny allegations of drug usage and abuse in their country, Dr. Greiten’s study and Rep. Kang’s report indicate a correlation to a problem that may be bleeding beyond the Hermit Kingdom.

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