Smoking rates decline in North Korea

Kim Jong Un smoking at a military training in 2013
Kim Jong Un smoking at a military training in 2013. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Laborers working on repairs at France’s Notre Dame cathedral have admitted to smoking on the job prior to the fire that destroyed parts of the structure in mid-April. While the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, there has already been a great amount of criticism directed at the workers for flouting anti-smoking rules, and criticism of the dangers of smoking is set to grow even stronger with World No Tobacco Day taking place on May 31.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most recent estimate is that 43.9% of North Korean men smoke. This represents an 8.4% decrease from a prevalence of 52.3% in 2012. North Korean state media has called this reduction a result of the country’s anti-smoking campaign.

The decline in smoking in North Korea is likely due to the spread of information about smoking, including the fact that it causes several types of cancer, and because many women have shown a distaste for it. Women interviewed on Korean Central TV (KCTV) and other state-run media have made statements including, “It’s nonsensical to smoke at the office in the morning” and, “It’s obvious you should stop smoking for your health.

However, the smoking culture among regular North Koreans does not seem to have changed drastically, according to sources in the country.

“There are campaigns and other awareness programs that suggest people shouldn’t smoke, but most men don’t care. Men continue to smoke through colds and other illnesses even though they know their health will suffer,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

A source in Ryanggang Province said that “heavy smokers don’t smoke Sonchon cigarettes, which are made in South Pyongan Province, because the cigarettes are considered too weak. Men take really strong cigarettes made in Ryanggang Province and mix them 50/50 with Sonchon cigarettes.”

Various types of North Korean cigarettes
Various types of North Korean cigarettes. Image: Daily NK

Cigarettes are also commonly used as bribes in North Korea, making it harder to crack down on cigarette use.

North Korean men smoke inside and outside their own houses, even when non-smokers are present. Some men continue to smoke even if their wife is pregnant or they have kids.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is well known to be a heavy smoker, and state media does not try to hide this fact.

Kim is frequently photographed smoking during on-the-spot visits to factories, companies and apartment buildings. He can also be seen smoking at daycare facilities, hospitals, subways and other facilities where smoking is prohibited. He even smoked near his pregnant wife Ri Sol Ju in 2013.

North Korean women and young people are less likely to smoke. Defectors say that North Korea’s conservative view of women and negative perception of women smokers have played a role in keeping smoking rates low among women.

WHO data does not provide information on female smokers in North Korea. Recently, however, women have increasingly started to smoke as they play a larger economic role in the market economy and their social status improves.

There are some middle school students who smoke and kkotjebi (wandering, homeless children) may smoke as well; however, such cases are rare.

North Korean sources report that there are 42 types of cigarettes sold in local markets and around 15 cigarette factories throughout the country. Residents can buy two or three cigarette packs for the equivalent of one kilogram of rice.

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Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Many of her articles are featured in the Jangmadang section of the Daily NK website. She has been interviewed by the New York Times and LA Times, among others, and is a contributor on North Korea issues for TBS and KBS.