Report: North Korea ordered its foreign diplomats to become drug dealers

March 22, 2013

The North Korean embassy in Beijing. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

It sounds crazy, but there is good reason to suspect that this story, in the prominent South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, could be true. According to the story, North Korea ordered its diplomats in some number of foreign embassies, including at least one in Eastern Europe, to sell illegal drugs on the streets. The diplomats, according to a defector who spoke to South Korean intelligence, were each sent abroad with 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) of drugs and were told to raise $300,000 from the sales.

In case that is not weird enough for you, the diplomats were told that they were being asked to forgo their ambassadorial responsibilities in favor of pushing illicit drugs in order "to prove their loyalty and mark the birthday of nation founder Kim Il Sung on April 15."

That's a pretty sharp deadline for selling a relatively large amount drugs in a foreign country (and strikingly similar to the plot of "Half Baked," a 1998 Dave Chappelle comedy in which he must rapidly sell $1 million in marijuana to bail out his friend). The story estimates that a single embassy might enlist 10 of its diplomats as drug dealers, an earning potential of $3 million per foreign mission.

If it is true, it would be an extension of North Korea's practice of selling state-manufactured drugs, typically high-quality meth, in China. Why not start selling the drugs in even wealthier countries?

North Korea desperately needs hard currency – literal paper cash – to make up for its economic isolation. While most of the country suffers in absolute poverty, Pyongyang runs a parallel mini-economy to keep ruler Kim Jong Un and his inner circle living in luxury. A secretive government office called "Room 39" manages illicit income, from such sources as meth exports (estimated worth: $100 million to $200 million per year) or scamming foreign businesses, which it then uses to quietly import high-quality food and liquor for Kim's court. The money could also potentially be spent on the country's weapons program.

Products from the state-run meth labs, though, are starting to trickle out into North Korean society. Journalist Isaac Stone Fish reported in 2011 for Newsweek that many North Koreans, because they lack access to basic medicines or health care but have relatively easy access to the drug they call "ice," have started using meth as a sort of cure-all. "People with chronic disease take it until they’re addicted," one NGO worker with experience in the country told Fish. "They take it for things like cancer. This drug is their sole form of medication."

And yet the state is making more of the drug, pushing it out across its embassies, to fuel the illicit "Room 39" economy and keep Kim Jong Un in caviar and brandy. It's too bad that Pyongyang doesn't have as much interest in mass-producing, for example, cancer medication or agricultural fertilizer.

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Max Fisher | March 21, 2013