This week’s edition throws light on a critical challenge in the region: the unabated flow of – and appetite for – narcotic drugs. We look at how Sri Lanka is emerging as a critical spoke in narcotics trafficking, even as domestic consumption continues unabated posing serious risks. We probe how South Korea too is finding itself at the unfortunate frontline of drugs trafficking as a key transshipment node. Also in this edition: China’s counterterror posture, and modeling narco-trafficking networks.
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DRI Asia Review
September 17,
A High Low: Asia-Pacific and Narcotics
Sri Lanka battles drugs amid economic downturn
South Korea as a narcotics transshipment hub
9/11’s shadow over China
Narcotics trafficking and interdiction as a complex adaptive system

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s edition throws light on a critical challenge in the region: the unabated flow of – and appetite for – narcotic drugs. We look at how Sri Lanka is emerging as a critical spoke in narcotics trafficking, even as domestic consumption continues unabated posing serious risks. We probe how South Korea too is finding itself at the unfortunate frontline of drugs trafficking as a key transshipment node. Also in this edition: China’s counterterror posture, and modeling narco-trafficking networks.


Sri Lanka’s Drug Problem: The Whys and Hows
HMS Westminster Conducting Boarding Operations in the Indian Ocean
— Flickr, Defence Images

The illicit drug industry thrives on innovation and shapes itself to suit domestic political and economic dynamics in the source and target countries. And it is surprisingly resilient and adaptive: Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought life around the globe to a standstill, failed to deter illicit drug flows in the Asia-Pacific region, which registered record high production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals last year. Due to sudden border closures and air travel restrictions, a UNODC report indicated the increased use of maritime routes for trafficking drugs, especially along the “southern route” across the Indian Ocean which “indicate a change in the strategy of drug trafficking organizations…” Recent spike in drug seizures off Sri Lanka’s coast (Colombo port being a major transit hub for international drug traffickers) confirms this trend.

On September 1, the Sri Lankan Navy in coordination with the police and intelligence authorities interdicted a foreign vessel—reportedly of Pakistani origin—carrying over 600 kilograms of heroin and arrested seven Pakistani nations. This came just a day after the Sri Lankan authorities carried out a similar operation, where they seized over 200 kilometers of heroin and arrested five locals who were reportedly trying to smuggle it into the country from Pakistan. Earlier this year in March, the Indian Coast Guard through an air-sea coordinated mission seized over 300 kilograms heroin and small arms from an intercepted Sri Lankan vessel in Lakshadweep sea. While heroin remains the most popular drug being smuggled to Sri Lanka, increasing seizures of crystal methamphetamine —which are easier to produce than heroin—indicates that synthetic drugs have also penetrated into the local drug market.

These interdictions indicate a common pattern—increasing use of small fishing vessels, which are much more difficult to police than large vessels in international waters to smuggle illegal drugs, a trend that has increased globally. This points to the shrinking options for commercial fishermen from coastal communities, who are often left with no options but to engage in illegal drug trafficking to support their livelihood.

For Sri Lanka, this comes at a time when the country is witnessing a food emergency, balance of payments crisis, deepening foreign exchange crisis threatening to collapse Colombo’s economy. Sri Lanka’s drug menace has been accelerated by endemic corruption in the country, evident from the arrest of several officers from key national narcotics units last year, for being involved in a drug ring. Emerging voices from within Sri Lanka point out how the country is no longer just a hub in the transit route, but a final destination for drug trafficking—indicating prevalence of domestic drug abuse, which in turn has huge economic and social implication for a poor country like Sri Lanka.

Despite sustained efforts by the government to curb drugs—including removing the 43 year long mortarium on capital punishment, to resume execution of apprehended drug traffickers—the country’s drug problem has only deepened.

Number of drug offenders sentenced to death in Sri Lanka, 2011-2020
— Data: Prison Statistics of Sri Lanka, various years, Sri Lanka Department of Prisons. Graphics: DRI

The Rajapaksa government’s militarized approach to drug control, including the establishment of a task force consisting of top military and police officers to prevent drug abuse, has been criticized by human rights groups and agencies such as Human Rights Watch. Sri Lanka’s drug problem has regional implications as well, especially for India which is concerned about Pakistani involvement in using Colombo as a trans-shipment hub for pushing drugs and arms into India. Maritime security has emerged as an important regional concern, especially after the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai revealed the vulnerabilities of India’s maritime and coastal security architecture.

Despite growing security concerns about the high rate of human and drugs smuggling along maritime routes, sustained regional efforts to combat these crimes remains disaggregated. The revival of the trilateral national security advisors meeting on maritime security between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives November last year, that focuses exclusively on maritime security, counter terrorism, disaster relief, and other regional security challenges was a step in the right direction. Following that meeting, a decision was taken to establish a permanent “Colombo Security Conclave" (CSC) involving all three Indian Ocean countries. The deputy national security advisors of these countries, along with those from Bangladesh, Mauritius and Seychelles as observers, met under the CSC format on August 4 where they discussed “current security measures, provisions, use of latest technology, bilateral cooperation and effectiveness and sustainability of such security measures among nations.” The Indian readout of the meeting identified tackling “trafficking and organized crime” as one of the four key issues that will drive CSC cooperation going forward.

Currently there is no evidence of narcotics production in Sri Lanka. Therefore, local consumption is fueled by trafficked drugs which regular coastal patrolling and effective regional maritime cooperation can help combat.


South Korea Combats Narcotics Trafficking
People attend an online game forum to discuss the latest bill that groups Internet games with alcohol, drugs and gambling as the four addictions that the government should do more to prevent in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, December 11, 2013.
— AP Photo, Ahn Young-joon

Sri Lanka of course is far from being the only country in the Asia-Pacific in throes of a major narcotics problem. On September 2, South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo reported that government agencies arrested a man, whose identity was not revealed, trying to smuggle 404 kilograms of methamphetamine—which the newspaper inferred was enough to intoxicate 13.5 million people—from Mexico. Estimated to be worth 1.3 trillion South Korean won, this was the largest seizure of narcotics in Korean history, since authorities seized 112 kilograms of drugs in 2018. The report suggests that the drugs were likely being transported to Australia, using South Korea as a transit point. The apprehended drug smuggler revealed that when shipments to Australia ran into trouble, the drugs were domestically stored in South Korea.

This comes after reports emerged on August 9 that the country’s chief intelligence agency issued a warning about the increasing use of South Korea as a transit hub by international drug trafficking organisations. The agency’s International Crime Information Centre report notes the increasing use of dark web and social media for illegal drug transactions, and drugs smuggling through international express mail services, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic placed restrictions on air and land travel.

DRI Future Tense

AI and Future War: Dissecting the Hype

Listen to DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej converse with Brussels School of Governance PhD researcher Maaike Verbruggen on all things AI, as they discuss how the emerging tech discourse is shaping major international security conversations. Will drone swarm technology transform aerial warfare? What role does trust play in the context of human-machine interface in semi-autonomous systems? How effective are AI-based systems in contested conflict environments? What are the opportunities and challenges ahead for AI integration in warfare?

Listen to the podcast


China’s Counterterror Approach
Statue of Mao Zedong in Kashgar, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China
— Flickr, Michael Wong

The Chinese government, in the past, have maintained that separatists in the restive province of Xinjiang – including those affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, that continues to find shelter in Afghanistan – are involved in narcotics trafficking, though independent experts have been skeptical of such claims. But in general, what is the overall thrust of China’s approach towards terrorism in that region and elsewhere? Is China trying to export its own model of counterterrorism to the outside world? Will Beijing redefine how the international community looks at terrorism? How effective are China’s counter terrorism policies domestically? How is China addressing the critical tension between protecting human rights and counterterrorism efforts? — these were some of the pressing questions addressed by our panelists in the third session of a three-part virtual, pre-recorded The Diplomat/DRI conference on “9/11 and Asia: Two Decades Later.” The session was moderated by the Diplomat’s Editor-in-Chief Shannon Tiezzi.

Dr Wang Zhen, research professor of international studies at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, discussed the legal framework governing China counterterrorism policies, and the broader principles underlying Beijing’s actions. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, discussed how China’s counter terrorism approach is deeply entwined with President Xi Jinping’s broader conception of national security, highlighting the difference between Washington and Beijing’s understanding of the concept. Yun Sun, Senior Fellow and Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center discussed China’s overseas counterterrorism efforts through bilateral and multilateral channels, while questioning Beijing’s unilateral actions in overseas law enforcement.

Watch the panel discussion here.

DRI Report

Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0 Political Drivers, Taliban Strategies, and Domestic Implications

Based on exhaustive in-house research and interviews with 10 leading experts, the report looks at the domestic and international drivers behind the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15 and the return of the Taliban to power two decades after they were ousted. The report also probes Taliban 2.0, the group’s possible economic strategies, as well as the social implications of their return to Kabul.

View Report


Narcotics Trafficking and Interdiction as Complex Adaptive System
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets members of a special forces team during a counter-narcotics tour in Bogota, Colombia, on August 12, 2013.
— Flickr, U.S. Department of State

Narcotics traffickers and those tasked with interdicting drug flows are constantly locked in an in a cat-and-mouse game, and it is intuitively appealing to think of both as coevolving, with actions and tactics of one being intricately linked with those of the other. A 2019 research paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, formalizes this intuition as an agent-based model (ABM) that generates extremely realistic results. The model, NarcoLogic – which was calibrated and tested against the U.S. government’s Consolidated Counterdrug Database – shows how interdiction efforts by the U.S. and allied agencies in the Western hemisphere interact with cocaine trafficking networks both spatially and over time, and to the extent to which the “proliferation and resiliency” of these networks are linked with interdiction efforts themselves.

Based on the NarcoLogic ABM, the authors conclude: “[N]arco-trafficking is as widespread and difficult to eradicate as it is because of interdiction, and increased interdiction will continue to spread traffickers into new areas, allowing them to continue to move drugs north [towards the United States].”

DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej and Research Analysts Malvika Rajeev and Rushali Saha contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of South Korean media articles were provided by an in-house team of linguists.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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