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Crystal Meth Is the Hot Gift in North Korea this Lunar New Year

Crystal Meth in North Korea

The illegal drug has become one of the most popular gifts during holidays, birthdays, and graduations. 

As people across Asia celebrate the Lunar New Year by passing out gifts and taking part in festivities, a new trend is emerging in North Korea that's changing the tradition a bit: crystal meth.

The rise of methamphetamine in the isolated country is said to be an "open secret" and is increasingly becoming a well-established custom as users casually snort or inject the drug, according to The New York Times. Currently, the world is facing a global crisis related to the drug -- especially within gay and bisexual male communities who report higher usage.

"Meth, until recently, has been largely seen inside North Korea as a kind of very powerful energy drug -- something like Red Bull, amplified,"said Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul, to the Times. This perception of the dangerous drug is what's allowed it to go mainstream in North Korea.

Meth began to be manufactured as an export during the early-1990s as the impoverished nation tried to create new revenue- generating industries, according to a 2014 study by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, a political scientist at the University of Missouri.

By the mid-2000s, the government pivoted and stopped producing the drug, leaving many laborers who'd been trained on drug production to create small-scale labs and begin selling locally.

While meth is now illegal in the nation, the drug has still effectively become legal "because officials take bribes to look the other way, and because the state indirectly benefits from a food chain of bribes that goes all the way to the top," said Justin Hastings, a political scientist at the University of Sydney, in an interview with the Times.

Radio Free Asia, the United States government-funded news outlet, was the first to report on the drug's new popularity in North Korea for the Lunar New Year. The organization used several anonymous sources within the North Korean government to lay out the breadth of this new trend.

North Korean authorities say it's become common to see users as young as middle school students, causing officials to interrogate elementary school students as they try to stop the spread of meth, RFA reports. Users refer to the drug as "pingdu," which is transliteration of the Chinese word for "ice drug" and has roots in the Western word for the drug: ice.

While the authorities are now cracking down, according to local reports, many experts fear that the country will not truly try to eradicate its usage as long as the drug use doesn't challenge the current regime.

So, for now, the tradition only grows.

"They usually buy ice to snort together during holidays," a source told RFA, adding, "They want to forget their harsh reality and enjoy themselves."

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