The Life and Times of North Korea: Drug Money


Narcotics and the Nile

North Korea didn’t have a drug problem. He had drugs, but they weren’t the problem. A stagnant economy was. Drugs were merely the solution. Well, they were a sort of solution. Hash couldn’t solve the flaws of his rigid and closed-off socialist system, but it helped. So for the first time, the depravity of the Western world worked in North Korea’s favor.

May 1976

North Korea stepped into China’s office, head downcast. He walked slowly to his comrade’s desk, feet heavy with guilt as he dragged them along the carpet. He could only guess that China was watching him with eyes slowly widening in anticipation.

When China spoke, his tone was as accusing as it was assuming. “What did you do?”

North Korea stopped in front of the other’s desk, refusing to look at him. “I’ve been bad.”

Almost immediately, North Korea heard a TV cutting on to a Chinese news station. China began to shuffle through papers on his desk—as if he were searching for and even expecting to find a memo that read “SEOUL HAS BEEN CAPTURED. AGAIN.” But he’d find no such memo.

“I’ve… I’ve been smuggling illegal contraband into foreign countries.” North Korea looked up in time to see China’s  posture loosen with relief.

“Is that all?”

“I was caught, China. By Egypt. He assaulted me.”

China rubbed is temples. “Your definition of assault is very broad. You said you’d been ‘attacked’ when Romania tried to hug you.”

“Because it was terrifying.”

They stared at each other for a good while until China finally sighed. “Alright. What happened?”


Nervous eyes scanned the airport lobby. North Korea gripped the luggage tightly, knowing well its contents were highly valuable and highly illegal.

He lifted the suitcase onto the belt, heart racing as it drifted closer and closer to the scanner. Sweat formed on his brow.

There was absolutely no way it would be found. The hashish had been expertly hidden in a pouch of rolling tobacco. Hiding drugs within drugs… it was brilliant. North Korea would be out of there in no time and off selling the substance to needy Egyptians and—

Oh, never mind. They found it.

Before North Korea knew it, he was cornered by a fellow who was much taller and packing way more muscle. But rather than greet him with fury, Egypt greeted him with a grin.

“I’ve seen a lot of things,” Egypt said with amusement. “But I wasn’t expecting to see one of Russia’s little satellites float into my country carrying illegal narcotics with such confidence. Is it funny or sad? Help me decide.”

North Korea grit his teeth. “Says the one careening toward a life of servitude to the United States. I’ll cherish the irony for a moment before I pretend like I didn’t hear what you said.”

“Give me your luggage.”

North Korea brandished the knife he’d kept hidden in his jacket. Though he might have been pointing a very sharp object at another person, his unsteady demeanor ruined the tough guy act.

“Look, Egypt… It’s a tough economy, right? I just defaulted! It’s… it’s hard to be a socialist these days. You know how that is, don’t you? So let’s just talk this out, okay? I’m sure we could–AUGH!”

Unfortunately for him, Egypt didn’t care. He answered North Korea’s suggestion with a firm punch to the gut.

And North Korea crumbled to the ground, weapon hitting the floor with a resounding clank.


By the time the story was over, North Korea was teary-eyed and China was teetering on distraught.

“You pulled a knife on Egypt?”

“China,” North Korea said, voice shaking. “You see it, can’t you? My failure? Tell me that I’m a screw-up.” China stared at him. “It’s not just the drugs…” The Korean continued. “It’s liquor, and cigarettes, and counterfeit American money.”

“Why are you telling me this? Please stop telling me this.”

“They haven’t caught me on those, yet, but the narcotics… Dammit, China, I ruined myself! Please, you have to tell me that I’m horrible!”

“Whatever is happening right now needs to stop immediately.”

With fists balled in his lap, North Korea jerked his head in China’s direction and looked right at him. The rare moment of intimate eye contact immediately made both of them uncomfortable, though North Korea a little less so because his vision was partly clouded by tears.

“You realize, don’t you, that I’ve made a terrible mistake? Make me feel awful for it! I deserve as much!”

Right before China could begin to wonder if he were dreaming or not, the phone rang. “Russia, Russia–I’m sorry but something has come up and–”

There was a thud. North Korea had smacked his head against China’s bookshelf.

“Stupid!” He cried, continuing to rip himself a new one. “How could I have been bested so easily? And by a traitor no less? I’ve failed not only myself but socialism as a whole!”

China tried to assure Russia over his friend’s whining that everything was okay. The emotionally fragile communist turned to China once more, eyes burning with fervor rather than tears.

“Yesterday I slept through my alarm. Twice. Last week I realized that I’d failed to remove a fingerprint from Kim’s portrait. A few days ago my bike got a flat tire!”

China hissed. “How is that your fault?”

“Negligence is a vice! One of the worst of them all!” He stopped shouting for a moment to take on a deeper and more serious tone. “Punish me. I deserve to be humiliated for my shortcomings. Treat me like the embarrassment that I am.”

China gripped the phone tighter. “Nothing is going on over here, Russia. And no, it does not sound like fun.”


Eventually North Korea calmed down because eventually China gave in and played along.

“Thank you, China,” he said with a sigh. “I feel much better now.”

The slightly exasperated China merely grunted in reply.

North Korea took a stand, straightened up his clothes, and headed for the door. But before stepping out, he turned back and asked in a quiet voice. “Oh, do you want to buy some hash by any chance?”


During Kim Il-sung’s reign, the North Korean government established what were called “Weekly Life Review Sessions,” or “Self-Criticism and Mutual-Criticism Sessions.” During these, North Koreans would confess to their every misdeed of that week, like being late to work or forgetting to take care of their leader’s portraits. The confession would be followed by  harsh group and self-evaluation. These meetings were usually very theatrical and melodramatic. The drama was likely feigned to some extent, but it only seems right that this over-the-top guilt and self-depreciation would spill over into the character’s personality. (Besides, North Korea is still incredibly melodramatic. Some people never change.)

If you want to read about similar evaluation sessions from the perspective of North Korean defectors, DailyNK has a nice piece on that.

It was during this time in history that Egypt was politically shifting away from socialist influence (and even seeking an ally in the US as opposed to the USSR). North Korea, a staunch socialist who vehemently hated anything that wasn’t socialist, would probably think Egypt was total weaksauce for this. Hence, the mutual snark during the flashback.

North Korea didn’t exactly “clean up” after this little episode with China. In October of the same year, diplomats were caught smuggling liquor and cigarettes into various Scandinavian countries. There was also a huge boom in meth around 2005. If you want to learn more about North Korea’s history of drug trafficking and use, check out this Vice article.

2 thoughts on “The Life and Times of North Korea: Drug Money

  1. Your insight into the iron curtain is poignant and interesting. The narrative structure is crafted so well and resembles an interesting story. Anand Bose from Kerala

    Liked by 1 person

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