On one occasion, my mother called me with an alarming question. Normally we spoke on the weekends, but this time her call came during the day while I was at work. She sounded excited.
‘I’ve got a few kilos of ice.’
‘What?’ I sank down in my seat, out of sight of my colleagues.
She wanted to know if I had connections in China who could sell it.
Ice, or crystal methamphetamine, had long replaced heroin in North Korea as the foreign-currency earner of choice for the state. It’s a synthetic drug that is not dependent on crops, as heroin is, and can be manufactured to a high purity in state labs. Most of the addicts in China were getting high on crystal meth made in North Korea. Like the opium of the past, crystal meth, though just as illegal, had become an alternative currency in North Korea, and given as gifts and bribes.
‘Omma.’ My voice was a furious whisper. ‘Do you know what that is? It’s highly illegal.’
‘Well, lots of things are illegal.’
In her world, the law was upside down. People had to break the law to live. The prohibition on drug-dealing, a serious crime in most countries, is not viewed in the same way – as protective of society – by North Koreans. It is viewed as a risk, like unauthorized parking. If you can get away with it, where’s the harm? In North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty. This is well understood by all North Koreans. To my mother, the legality of the ice was a trifling matter. It was just another product to trade.
She said one of the big local traders brought it to the house because he knew I was in China and wondered if I could sell it there.
‘Give it back to him. Never get involved. There are bad people in that trade, and they won’t care if you’re caught.’
She never asked me again.
26 November 2016
Ice as Alternative Currency in North Korea
From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2689-2705: