North Korea Grows Lots of Poppies but Insufficient Food

May 12th, 2011

By Dan Miller

North Korean Magic ShowNorth Korea grows lots of poppies but insufficient food. Jimmy Carter has no comment.

This is one of several recent articles dealing with North Korea’s increased use of slave labor from its massive and growing political prison camps to grow poppies in order to make heroin to export for hard currency. It notes,

Chuck Downs, executive director for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights, told Fox News Wednesday that the “expansion indicates that the regime is in deep economic trouble and that the North is desperate to boost its foreign currency reserves by exporting drugs.”

Downs also said the fields surrounding prison camps were never used for growing food because the prisoners, who labor for hours in them, would steal it.

“They would rather grow drugs,” Downs said, referring to the North Korean military, which controls the camps and drug production in the North.

This article provides additional information on the scope and methodology of the heroin initiative.

Just how big the North Korean production of heroin has become is astonishing, according to analysts and intelligence reports, and has been largely overlooked as the international community focused on a bigger issue – the sale of nuclear materials and technology. “It has gotten surprisingly little attention in the last ten years,” according to Bruce Bennett of the RAND corporation.

Because of the secrecy of the regime there are no firm figures on drug profits, but estimates put the earnings on exports of heroin from $500 million to $1 billion annually.

“To put that in context,” Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed out that “the total for legitimate exports is estimated at around $1 billion annually.”

North Korea first turned to large scale heroin production in the mid 1990s when the nation’s manufacturing sector collapsed. Kim Jong Il, the nation’s dictator, decided that the heroin was the quicker way to make up for the export losses and ordered all collective farms to dedicate 12 acres to poppy production.

Since then, according Klingner, production has seesawed depending on the success of other exports, like missiles. Even more startling than the state’s involvement in heroin production is its use of its diplomatic corps to beat customs inspections in order to distribute the heroin.

Over the past dozen years more than 50 Korean diplomats or other state workers have been caught carrying drugs into more than 20 countries, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Clearly, the DPRK needs money. Developing nuclear weaponry and maintaining a large military require it; even gifts to party members requires money.

“The regime uses the money to distribute to party members to give them a sense of well being, usually in the form of gifts like color televisions. Last September a huge party meeting was surprisingly delayed because gifts that had been purchased from China, with foreign currency, had not arrived.”

This article states that the United States is considering the resumption of food aid, if the hunger situation is really serious; it is almost certainly really serious, but largely for reasons of the DPRK’s own making. It also notes that

South Korean government officials and analysts have been expecting the U.S. to resume food aid sometime in the future.

But the U.S. has emphasized that it would consider the relations it has with South Korea before it does. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was cited by a South Korean diplomatic source on April 25 as saying she guaranteed President Lee Myung-bak that the decision over food aid would be made with regard to the South’s position.

If, as appears to be the case, North Korea is using large amounts of arable land useful for food production, as well as slave labor from its political prisons, to grow heroin poppies instead, and would divert at least substantial amounts of any food aid from its malnourished serfs and slaves to its military forces currently, while reserving what remainder it can for that purpose when it elects to go to war with South Korea, we should engage in a bit of “tough love.” We are not in a position to do any lasting good to North Korea’s starving and otherwise pitiful denizens; well meaning but futile attempts to do so by supplying their immediate needs will fail just as they have consistently done in the past. There is no basis for believing, or even hoping, that somehow — even magically — it will now be different.

Perhaps it’s time for the DPRK to apply some of its magic-making resources to actual food production rather than to its efforts to bewitch the gullible.

(This article was first published at The PJ Tatler.)


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4 Responses to “North Korea Grows Lots of Poppies but Insufficient Food”



  1. Tom Carter |

    Dan, I’ve been thinking about this one. As one who worked with foreign aid programs for almost a decade in a number of countries, I was always bothered by the “enabling” issue. Professionals in international development, at least the thoughtful ones, constantly worry about it. The DPRK is a perfect example, as was Iraq under Saddam.

    If we help North Korea feed their starving people, we further enable them to support a huge military, develop expensive weapons system, and suppress the masses while the elites live high on the hog. If we — the international community — deny the food aid, these regimes will have to divert money to feeding their own people or risk being thrown out of power. Unfortunately, people possessed of more ideological certitude than common sense can’t seem to understand this.

    As for the problem of preferring to grow poppies and export its derivative illegal drugs, that’s something we can deal with a lot better than we do. First, we and the rest of the world should do a better job of controlling the demand side in our own countries; second, we should control our borders sufficiently (horrors!) to make it very difficult and costly to smuggle in illegal drugs; and third, we should do everything we can to de-incentivize production through such things as sanctions and, where necessary, participate in direct action to destroy poppy fields and processing facilities.


  2. Dan Miller |

    Or, on the other hand, we could just legalize and tax all the stuff, at rates low enough to make legal sales better than competitive with what the drug peddlers get but high enough to discourage use and therefore sales. We could couple this with denial of government funding for medical and other care folks need due to their addictions. We could also save a bit by ceasing to fund the “War on Drugs” in which, if there have been any rules of engagement, they seem to have been ineffective.

    Would this help? Would it diminish drug and drug related activity in Mexico and most of Latin American and/or in the United States? Would good, sober and honest people get hooked and endure a lifetime of suffering? Would our jails be full of druggies and maybe even unemployed War on Drug agents reduced to robbing banks and convenience stores? Beats me.

    We seem quite unlikely to “control the borders,” because doing so would not be politically (in any sense of word) correct. Latin America in general doesn’t seem able or adequately motivated to do it and neither does Mexico in particular; corruption is systemic as well as endemic.


  3. Tom Carter |

    Dan, I completely agree that drugs should be legalized, controlled, and taxed. Treat drugs the same as alcohol. That would pretty much take the wind out of the sails of drug criminals. We’ll never be able to do it, though, because of politics.


  4. Brian |

    Careful, Tom, you’re starting to sound like one of us crazy libertarians.

    Unfortunately, I think you’re right though, that the War on (some) Drugs won’t end for the same reason we’re unlikely ever to have a Fair Tax – too many in the halls of power don’t want to give up the power that such irrational legislation brings them.


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