Next to the North Korean Border

In Chinese border towns like Yinji, cultures collide as large numbers of North Korean defectors resettle into these modest communities. With Korean karaoke bars and restaurants dotting its streets, Yinji looks like a cohabitation success story. It’s what you can’t see, however, that holds the true story: Methamphetamine by the truckload. Over the last decade, increasing numbers of defectors have been responsible for trafficking the largest supply of methamphetamine ever to cross into China. Towns like Yinji are now struggling with a drug addiction explosion among its citizens that threatens the very fabric of their society. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Yanji is located 50 miles from the North Korean border. Dilapidated warehouses and abandoned factories on the outskirts of town are smattered alongside the highway as defectors come in search of refuge. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Twenty years ago, Yanji had 44 registered drug addicts. Today, the city has registered over 2,100. With the extraordinary rise in users, drug treatment centers like this one have become a necessary reality. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

“There’s so little hope in North Korea-that’s why ice is becoming popular. People have given up,” says Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Rimjin-gang. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

“Selling ice is the easiest way to make money,” according to Shin Dong Hyuk, a North Korean defector now living in Seoul. “Every defector knows about ice.” Unfortunately, agricultural shopping centers such as this one hold less financial promise for someone looking to support themselves. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

On the streets of Yanji, and throughout Jilin Province, Chinese law enforcement is cracking down on drug dealers. Called operation “Strong Wind,” law enforcement arrested six North Korean drug dealers last year, including a dealer named Sister Kim. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Soothing melodies drown out the sound of police sirens and entertain restaurant patrons in downtown Yanji. The town is still full of life with coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

China’s youth are particularly susceptible to methamphetamine, as it is easy to find and inexpensive to purchase. Jilin province is not only the largest gateway for meth to enter the country. It has also become the largest consumer market for the drug. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

The pared back branches of this tree stand as a metaphor for a community quietly suffering underneath addiction. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

The survivor spirit that brought defectors across the border was fueled by realities in North Korea. The drug problem was at the last of their concerns. As one defector so aptly put it: “They don’t give us rice or rations. Do you think they’re going to do anything about drugs?” Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Life goes on as usual for citizens, even as law enforcement finds itself fighting an uphill battle. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

The reality behind picture perfect relationships can be harsh. China and North Korea’s political relationship has been cordial around the drug trafficking issue. The Chinese government has been careful with its words not to point the finger directly at North Korea for its seeming complicity. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

North Korea has a history of state-sponsored drug trafficking. In the 1970’s, the government ordered people in schools and concentration camps to plant poppy seeds for the government trade. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Anti-drug signs have begun popping up around China and South Korea alongside commercial advertisements. In cultures loath to admit to societal problems, this is a rare admission by these governments. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

In a 2008 report to Congress, there were 50 reported incidents of drug trafficking out of North Korea. Many incidents involved North Korean diplomats. Today, most drug trafficking is carried out by small scale smugglers. Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2011.

Isaac Stone Fish examines China’s growing struggle to combat illegal drug trafficking across its border with North Korea. Photographer Sean Gallagher went to China on assignment for Newsweek to capture life in these impacted border towns.