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North Korea facing drugs epidemic
A new study has found most North Koreans have used methamphetamine and its use is "normal", as Auskar Surbakti reports.

North Korea is in the grip of a drugs epidemic.

Methamphetamine is the drug in question and, according to a new study based on interviews with defectors, most North Koreans have used crystal meth and its use is now considered normal.

According to the interviewees crystal meth can be ordered in restaurants, and one informant said it was even being given to soldiers as a stimulant.

Auskar Surbakti reports.

(Footage of the Arirant Festival plays)

AUSKAR SURBAKTI, REPORTER: These are the images of North Korea the secretive regime wants the world to see. The country's Arirang Festival showcases the history of North Korea; thousands of people take part in a highly choreographed performance.

It's one of the few occasions foreign tourists are allowed into the country under close supervision of government minders.

But behind the propaganda another picture is emerging about life in North Korea.

(Undercover film footage plays)

Undercover filming recently exposed the levels of poverty in the country.

(Undercover footage of Yodok Camp plays (source: YouTube))

And former inmates of North Korean concentration camps have given hellish testimony before UN investigators.

But one aspect of North Korean society has so far remained hidden, what's being described as a methamphetamine epidemic. A new study, published in the North Korea Review Journal, says almost every adult in the northern areas of North Korea has used methamphetamine, which is known as bingdu or ice.

CHRISTOPHER GREEN, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS MANAGER, DAILY NK ONLINE: I think it was a study waiting to be written. This has been a societal problem for more than five years. And yes it's no surprise to me at all that this has emerged at this time.

We are aware of the production of this drug takes place over a number of years. And on a societal basis it's been slowly but surely becoming a more prevalent social problem since around the middle of the 2000s.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: The research, based on interviews with North Korean defectors to South Korea, suggests a staggering 40 to 50 per cent of people in those areas could be seriously addicted to the drug.

Kim Young-il is the executive director of the People for Successful Reunification, or PESCORE, which helps people who have fled North Korea settle into South Korean society.

He's also a North Korean defector himself, and says almost all of the North Koreans he's met have used bingdu.

KIM YOUNG-IL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PESCORE (translation): People in North Korea know that drugs are life threatening. I also learned they were harmful when I was living there. But people still use drugs because they're an outlet to escape the strong government control in North Korea.

(Footage of methamphetamine that has been seized is shown)

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: The study says every the past several years met production has gone from government owned factories to privately run underground laboratories and home kitchens. And with much of the country in poverty, analysts say the drug has become a cure-all in some parts of North Korea.

CHRISTOPHER GREEN: In a lot of cases people have been turning towards methamphetamines was one of the few viable alternatives to the existing realities. So for people who are sick, lacking regular forms of medicine, they might turn to methamphetamines as a painkiller.

For people who are struggling to survive working in the markets, working all the hours God sends, they might turn to the drug as well. Among the affluent classes people are turning to it purely for recreational purposes. So as you can see it influences many facets of North Korean life these days.

(Footage of seizure of heroin from the Pong Su is shown)

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: In 2003, Australian police seized the North Korean cargo ship Pong Su, with they say trafficked 125 kilograms of heroin into Australia. Police arrested the crew, which included a North Korean ruling party official.

And there are now claims that the North Korean regime is involved in drug trafficking as a means to help it earn hard currency. One expert says North Korea has a long history with drug production.

DR LEONID PETROV, NORTH KOREA ANALYST, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: The production of amphetamine-based drugs is actually not new phenomenon for Korea for or the north-east Asian area in general.

(Archival footage of the Japanese imperial army during World War II is shown)

It traces back to the Second World War when the Japanese imperial army was conquering China, Korea, Manchuria, and the strong stimulants based on amphetamine were used by the imperial army in order to encourage the suicide, kamikaze operations in the area.

AUSKAR SURBAKTI: But North Korea doesn't acknowledge there are any major problems in the country let alone a problem with drugs.

Analysts say it must fall on the international communities to help the reclusive state deal with its addiction to ice.

DR LEONID PETROV: I think North Korea could be engaged in the normal trade where the government would be treated more equally; certain sanctions both multilateral and bilateral would be removed where North Korea could be given more incentives into regional engagement.

KIM YOUNG-IL: To stop the use of ice the North Korean government must stop the importing of ingredients used to make the drug, particularly from China. There needs to be more medicine available as well, so people won't turn to ice to treat their pain. And there needs to be a rise in the standard of living for all North Koreans.
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