Seoul started to fully enforce laws against smoking in public places on the 1st of this month following the end of a grace period. Some of the city’s many smokers, still unaware of the change, have had to pay the price, and there have been a few scenes of people trying to avoid enforcement. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the city’s citizens, particularly the young, seem to agree with the new regulations.
May 31st was also the 26th ‘World No Tobacco day.” According to Rodong Shinmun, North Korea also observed ‘No Tobacco Day’ at an event held at Pyongyang People’s Palace of Culture. It was attended by WHO officials, government agency and affiliated union representatives and ordinary workers.
However, North Korea’s smoking rate is still one of the highest in the world. WHO reports claim that North Korea’s smoking rate among those age 15 years and older is 52.3%, the highest in Asia. This is partly because smoking in the streets and all major public facilities is allowed. Restaurants, parks, offices, theatres and public gathering areas are all places in which people are free to smoke. There are ‘no-smoking’ signs on trains, but many ignore these warnings as well.
The truth is that smoking is viewed as a tool of hospitality, while there is also a lack of awareness of the harm that secondhand smoking can cause. Offering a cigarette is a common greeting; it is also customary to offer them to Party cadres, security service agents and prosecutors to oil the wheels. Most male workers and farmers enjoy strong, cheap tobacco. Cigarette demand is perennially high, so some of those who are able farm tobacco in their private plots for cash income.
Equally, important people smoke. First and foremost, Kim Il Sung was often seen with a cigarette in his hand. Once, in video footage of Kim visiting a collective farm, he gave one of the farmers a cigarette, an act which was then praised as that of “the benevolent father of the people.” In a system such as North Korea’s, it was inevitable that giving cigarettes would then be taken up by all males as an act of high hospitality.
Kim Jong Il was also a smoker. He allegedly once named all the brands of cigarette produced by the most popular tobacco company, Daesung Tobacco, after trying them one by one.
That being said, Kim Jong Il quit smoking when his health began to deteriorate, bringing to bear a no smoking policy throughout North Korea. But this didn’t last long. After gradually recovering from his stroke, Kim is said to have asked for cigarettes once again.
The Kim Jong Eun era has seen the North Korean media promote some anti-smoking programs. However, publicity and reality are different in many ways. The truth is uncertain, but photos of Kim Jong Eun with an ashtray in front of him during some of his onsite inspections suggest that he also smokes.