So when did North Korea become a player in the blue meth trade?

The World

If you've ever seen the TV show "Breaking Bad," you know how a background in chemistry can come in handy in the illegal production of crystal meth.

That's not just fiction, as Isaac Stone Fish, associate editor at Foreign Policy, confirms when he describes how North Korea became a major meth producer.

"A devastating famine destroyed North Korea's social fabric in the 90s," Fish says. "After that, a  lot of out-of-work, or underemployed, chemists and other scientists in the eastern city of Hamhung were looking for new ways to feed their families, and they stumbled on crystal meth as a solution."  

Some of that meth is consumed in North Korea. People reportedly use it for medicinal purposes — and even to fend off starvation.

However, most North Korean meth is smuggled out through China. And who knows where it goes from there.

Just last week, five men were arrested in Thailand, for plotting to sell North Korean meth in New York City.

The men were flown to Manhattan for prosecution, but few details in the case have been revealed.

“All we know is what one of the ringleaders said,” says Fish. "But it’s the first example of North Korean meth sold in such large quantities appearing internationally that he’s heard about.”

So why ship it halfway around the world when there are more than enough meth labs in the US already?

Fish says according to the suspects, "they have made so-called blue crystal meth, Walter White quality so to speak, 99 percent pure.”

With that quality, it could be worth moving it from China to the US, says Fish. And, as with global trade, sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to move something from China to New York than from New Mexico.

Fish recently had the chance to bring this up with a North Korean defector, who told him that crystal meth is generally smuggled in small quantities because the Chinese frown upon this trade. If it is sent in larger amounts, then it's done with military or government support, Fish learned from the defector.