But experts say the custom of gifting crystal meth in North Korea — where it is called “pingdu,” the Korean transliteration of the Chinese word for “ice drug” — is essentially an open secret.
Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, said that many defectors interviewed by the center in 2016 spoke of crystal meth as a popular gift for birthdays, graduations and “holidays such as the Lunar New Year.”
Mr. Lankov, of NK News, said stories of crystal meth being given as a present were very common when he and a co-author conducted interviews with defectors for a 2013 study on North Korean drug use. He added that defectors had made fewer references to crystal meth in the years since, possibly indicating a decline in overall use.
While meth is illegal in North Korea, like other private economic activities there, the drug has 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 Australia who has studied North Korean drug trafficking networks.
“Over time, this has resulted in a culture where people are willing to take risks to make money, and official state prohibition has little meaning,” Mr. Hastings said.
Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington think tank, said that the regime of Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, was currently focusing all its resources on priorities such as developing missiles and giving domestic elites access to luxury goods.
“For as long as drug use does not pose a challenge to the regime, but instead dulls the wills and minds of the North Korean people, the government tacitly allows it to go on, despite the tremendous mental and physical health challenges it creates,” Mr. Scarlatoiu said.