Drugged by comrades
Published: Mar 12, 2013 09:48 PM Updated: Mar 12, 2013 09:56 PM
Soldiers patrol on Changbai Mountain in Yanbian, Jilin Province, bordering North Korea, on January 18. Photo: CFP
Soldiers patrol on Changbai Mountain in Yanbian, Jilin Province, bordering North Korea, on January 18. Photo: CFP


Perhaps tired of being known as one of China's frontlines in its war on drugs, authorities in Jilin Province launched a three-month crackdown on drug dealing starting in February, trying to bring the province's rampant drug trade to heel. 

Bordering North Korea, the province has long been the gateway for an influx of foreign-manufactured narcotics. Official sources remain curiously tight-lipped about the drugs' place of origin, although many, including foreign media outlets, point the finger at North Korea lying just across the Tumen River.

By the middle of 2012, about 2,400 suspects involved in drug cases had been caught in previous campaigns and over 262 kilograms of illicit drugs were seized during a province-wide campaign coded "Strong Wind" in 2011. 

These seem to be taking effect as police records read that drugs smuggled from abroad are decreasing in amount, while those brought into the area by drug dealers from southern Chinese cities are taking a bigger bite in the market.

"Intensified crackdowns, especially those targeting border areas have greatly reduced drug smuggling," Yu, a police officer with the public security bureau of Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture told the Global Times.

Plague of the border cities

The small town of Sanhe near China's border with North Korea in Jilin Province is known to tourists as a quaint little destination, known for its Korean cuisine and as a growing place for the valued pine mushroom. To local police and residents, however, it is a major distribution center for narcotics coming from abroad. A local taxi driver was quoted as describing the town as a "whole-scale drug market" in a report carried by Nandu Daily. 

For Yu, the problem isn't just confined to Sanhe but is afflicting a number of border towns across the Tumen River. The cities of Hunchun, Tumen, Longjing and Helong are all blighted by the drug trade that runs through them due to their advantageous position between China, North Korea and Russia.

The Tumen River is a godsend to drug runners who can walk across its shallow parts in summer or make their way across the frozen solid surface in winter.

A Xinhua report in 2010 was among the first to acknowledge that Yanbian, due to its geographical location and cultural environment, had become a major center for drug smuggling, distribution and consumption.

"The problem has existed for a long time, it has just rarely been publicized by the government," said Lü Chao, an expert on North Korea with the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, "but it doesn't mean no countermeasures are being taken."

"In most cases, drug smuggling takes place along the border. Foreign smugglers are usually in constant contact with operatives in China who work for them to transfer the drugs and collect money. These Chinese operatives are mostly residents in border areas and familiar with the local situation," Xinhua quoted Lin Guangjun, head of a frontier patrol team in Yanbian, as saying. 

A local police official that participated in one of the drug crackdowns also provided further evidence to Nandu Daily.

He said that as some phone signals from China extend across the border into North Korea, smugglers there can fix a date and place with their Chinese contacts, using Chinese-bought cell phones. Smugglers can then walk across the river at a relatively unsupervised point, transfer the drugs and arrange another meeting point to share the profits.

However, secret meetings on the ice at the dead of night are not the only manner to ferry drugs from China to North Korea. Businessmen who frequently shuttle back and forth across the border are also major carriers of foreign drugs.

Zhang, a lawyer in the border city of Tonghua, acknowledged to the Global Times that businessmen see this as a major source of profit and were willing to run the risk.

A report from The Daily Beast in 2011 estimated that a gram of meth in North Korea costs about 10 times the price of a kilogram of rice, which is about $15, that price, however, it's still cheaper than in China.

Police investigations found that meth smuggled into China from Southeast Asia sells at around 1,200 yuan ($193) per gram, but that coming from North Korea sells for at least 300 yuan higher per gram. This is due to the drug's high potency that has made it more popular among addicts.

International efforts

As it seems that the international criminal underworld can smell a business deal just as well as its legitimate counterparts, it has not taken long for interest to be shown from drug outfits in Japan and South Korea, as well as elsewhere in China. Police records show that they have moved in to claim a slice of these considerable profits. Trafficking routes have been mapped out, tracking how the drugs are taken across China and then over borders to other Asian countries.

Showing the spread of the trade, in early 2010, two South Korean drug dealers were seized by local police in Qingdao, Shandong Province. They had been trafficking drugs from Yanbian to Qingdao before selling them on to South Korea.

Japan has not escaped this pestilence. In April 2010, three Japanese nationals were put to death in Liaoning Province after being convicted of drug trafficking. Teruo Takeda, 67, was charged of buying 5 kilograms of meth in June 2003 and arranging for other Japanese to take the drugs out of China. Hironori Ukai, 48, and Katsuo Mori, 67, were caught at the airports of Dalian and Shenyang, both attempting to board planes to Japan while carrying drugs.

In 2011, South Korea's Donga newspaper carried a report which said that China had begun cooperating with South Korea to target illicit drugs coming from the North but this fact has never been openly admitted by the Chinese side.

Mounting toll

Drugs that are extracted from chemicals such as meth or ecstasy are referred to as synthetic drugs. With North Korea remaining the major production center for  such drugs, northeastern Chinese provinces have been ravaged by this easy access to synthetic drugs with addict numbers rising, a high-profile police official acknowledged.

Liu Yuejin, director of the Narcotics Control Bureau under the Ministry of Public Security said in 2011 that over 70 percent of addicts caught in the area used synthetic drugs.

A report published by the Yanbian University Law School in 2010 said that the number of drug addicts arrested by the police in Yanji city, capital of the prefecture area, had soared from less than 50 in the mid-90s to over 2,000 in 2010.

"The average age of drug addicts is also dropping. Before 1996, they were mainly people in their 40s, but now those aged up 17-35 make up 63 percent of the total, with the youngest one just 14 years old," professor Cui Jianyong wrote in the report.

Yu, the Yanbian cop, told the Global Times that the tide may have begun to turn since 2010, when a major new anti-drug push was started.

According to the report on, over 200 inspection teams were set up by residents in 167 villages along the border, with local police also setting up inspection sites at major drug smuggling points. Villagers in the cities of Helong and Longjing have developed an instant alarm system, through which they can report a drug trafficking case to the police by simply pressing one button on their cell phones. It is said that such initiatives have helped reduce border drug trade by close to 30 percent.

"In the year of 2010, police seized over 1.3 ton of drugs in Jilin Province while cracking down over 1500 drug-related cases, a 62.1 increase from 2009," said Wang Yan, deputy director of the provincial narcotics control office in 2011.

Mystique remains

A very curious element to this fairly obvious cross-border drug tussle between law enforcers and lawless rogues is that whenever asked, policemen such as Yu refused to identify the origin of the drugs coming across the border. Yu said he couldn't identify the source "due to its sensitive nature."

In this, his stance mirrors that of Chinese authorities who never identify the drugs' origin despite admitting the existence of smuggling within the area. 

Lü Chao said the "special relationship between China and North Korea" is a major reason behind this veil of secrecy. The origin of these illicit drugs in northeastern border areas is always referred to as an "unidentified foreign country" in domestic media coverage.

However, international condemnation of North Korea as a source is constant.

"Drug use may be rising within the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, according to reports from DPRK refugees and travelers to North Korea," said the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the US State Department.

The report said that "reliable information is difficult to obtain regarding illicit activities within the DPRK territory, but drug production and other criminal activities, such as the counterfeiting of cigarettes, appear to have continued in 2012."

A report carried by the Korean Yonhap News agency in November cited an unnamed North Korean resident as saying that "drugs are circulating within the nation," adding that they are especially popular among children of officials in Sinuiju, the capital of North Pyeongan Province. Lü said China would lend its voice to international efforts and openly criticize North Korea if more drugs were smuggled into the country, "but for now, the situation is still under the control of the Chinese police force."

Nandu Daily contributed to this story