Methamphetamine may be known as a modern American street drug, but Breaking Bad's Walter White was far from the first person to produce and distribute the product on a mass scale.
Meth was first developed during the late 19th century in Japan and throughout the 1990s, meth was produced, along with other illicit drugs, by the government of North Korea. But after looking inside this secret state, it’s clear that it's not the government that’s producing the synthetic drug anymore.
These days it’s ordinary North Koreans who have set up their own labs and are manufacturing and distributing it. In a country where food is scarce, apparently many North Koreans have no shame about using meth to curb their appetites or even treat their colds.
In North Korea, “meth is offered as casually as a cup of tea,” according to LA Times Beijing Bureau Chief Barbara Demick. About four years ago, Demick, who frequently works on the North Korean border, started hearing people discuss crystal meth.
"People were telling me that they were taking it for colds, for energy, to study, to cut the hunger—I was there just recently, [about] two weeks ago and everybody was talking about it—it seems to be the biggest business going on," she says.
Demick adds that from the 1970s through at least the 1990s North Korea's previous leader, Kim Jong-il, led a government sponsored drug production and trafficking ring.
"They used state sponsored drug production to raise hard currency—they made drugs, sold them abroad [in] Japan, South East Asia. There was even a drug ship found all the way in Austraila," says Demick. "It seems the government has somewhat gone out of that business, but there were a lot of people who had been trained in making drugs and they needed jobs. That's the good news, bad news thing about this story."
Demick says that crystal meth production and distribution is one of the few growing industries and commodities that North Koreans can manufacture, providing jobs for chemists, pharmacists and ordinary people. The meth is flowing into China, Japan and beyond.
"It's also intended for the North Korean market—I think everybody I've met recently has used it," she says. "It's everywhere in the culture. One woman told me that when you go to somebody's house it's a courtesy—instead of offering you a cup of tea they'll offer you ice—crystal meth."
A teenage girl Demick spoke with a few years ago told her she was offered meth at the age of 16 as a way to cure a cold.
"It doesn't seem to have the same stigma as it does in the West," says Demick. "Part of the reason it's selling so well in North Korea is [because] there are big prohibitions against selling many ordinary things—it's illegal to sell rice or flour because those are grains and it's anti-socialist to sell those kinds of products. But this in an odd way is more tolerated."