A courtroom sketch of five defendants in U.S. district court in Manhattan, Nov. 20, 2013, accused of conspiring to smuggle North Korean meth into the U.S.Jane Rosenburg/Reuters
Move over, Walter White. Five men have been extradited to the U.S. from Thailand for their alleged participation in a drug-trafficking ring involving the import of crystal meth produced in North Korea, a militarized nation that is one of the most reclusive in the world.
The men were arrested in September after they allegedly promised North Korean–made methamphetamines to undercover agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be exported to the United States.
Two of the men, who officials say were members of a Hong Kong–based criminal organization, allegedly sold more than 66 pounds of meth produced in North Korea in 2012.
That crystal meth was later seized by law enforcement, tested and found to be more than 99 percent pure — purer than the infamously high-quality meth cooked by Walter White, the fictional teacher-turned-drug-lord in the popular TV series "Breaking Bad."
The other three men — two from Great Britain and one from Thailand — allegedly agreed to transfer the meth from Thailand and store it in the Philippines.
"This investigation continued to highlight the emergence of North Korea as a significant source of methamphetamine in the global drug trade," DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement.
The men all pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges Wednesday, and a judge ordered them to be held without bail until their next court date, on Dec. 5, according to The Associated Press.
According to court documents, one of the defendants, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, also known as “Giorgio,” had bragged to undercover DEA agents that out of eight groups that had smuggled and dealt crystal meth from North Korea, his was the only one still capable of getting meth produced there.
He claimed that the North Korean government had burned all the meth labs to allay suspicions from the U.S. government. "Only our labs are not closed," he said.
Lim also said the group had stockpiled 1 ton of North Korean meth in the Philippines.
In such an isolated country, how is an illicit drug trade possible?
Isaac Stone Fish, an associate editor at the journal Foreign Policy, traveled to North Korea twice, and covered the exportation of meth from North Korea and the growing meth addiction problem in bordering Chinese towns as a Newsweek correspondent, as sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
While offering the caveat that North Korean defectors are “notoriously unreliable,” Stone Fish told Aljazeera he interviewed 12 defectors who said they knew people who had taken crystal meth, including one who admitted he’d taken it himself. North Koreans fleeing the desperate conditions at home were also known to carry meth and other illicit drugs with them while attemping to cross the border in order barter for food or supplies, he said.
“It does seem like it is very widespread in North Korea. It wasn’t viewed as an illicit drug, but more as just a kind of medicine” due to the lack of medical infrastructure in the country, Stone Fish said in a telephone interview.
“It’s also an appetite suppressant in a country where malnutrition is very common,” he added.
Stone Fish said the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s is believed to have resulted in poor, unemployed scientists starting to produce crystal meth as a way of making money to feed their families.
North Korea was far more isolated in the 1990s than it is now, so while Stone Fish has no idea where the drugs may have come from, he said this recent incident indicates that “it does appear to have become a more professional effort” in North Korea.
“Our best guess is that crystal meth started being produced on a more industrial scale in the late ‘90s, in part because the heavy rains had destroyed the poppy crop, so opium was a less profitable source” of cash for North Korea, he said.
Indeed, a congressional research report from 2007 (PDF) said North Korea has been linked to drug trafficking - and specifically to meth – based on “50 documented incidents in more than 20 countries, many involving arrest or detention of North Korean diplomats” who were caught carrying North Korean-produced meth.
These events, the report said, point to “credible, but unproven, allegations of large scale state sponsorship of drug production and trafficking” in North Korea.
And The Wall Street Journal, citing a spring 2013 issue of the journal North Korea Review, reported that North Korea has been experiencing a “drug epidemic,” in which methamphetamines that were originally intended for export to China ended up taking the domestic market by storm.