North Korea is a country of smokers. In the 1990s, it was believed that roughly 90 percent of all North Korean men smoked. However, things began to change in the early 2000s as the North Korean government launched an anti-smoking campaign. Thus, recently, an official from the North Korean public health ministry told the KCNA that a mere 44.3 percent of North Korean men are now smoking. They are almost certainly underreporting here; nonetheless, a decline is apparent.
The Korean people began to smoke in 17th century and most Korean males have continued to smoke until recently, if they aren’t a majority still. In the old days, many Koreans believed that tobacco had medicinal qualities, so they smoked to calm their nerves or improve their digestion. They no longer smoke for such reasons, and in North Korean schools students have been always told that smoking is bad. However, these warnings have been largely ignored, and most North Koreans still believe smoking to be a normal activity for men.
North Koreans are far more forgiving should they happen upon a heavily drinking woman than a woman who smokes
Unlike men, North Korean women almost never smoke. North Koreans are outraged by the idea of a woman smoking a cigarette. Such conduct is seen as depraved debauchery, positively scandalous and completely improper. Surprisingly, North Koreans are far more forgiving should they happen upon a heavily drinking woman than a woman who smokes. When North Korean refugees come to the South, they are shocked when they see how many South Korean women actually smoke. They are even more outraged because the South Korean women do not make secret of their habits and sometimes smoke in public.
In North Korea, the only exception to this rule is old women, especially in the countryside. It is sometimes considered to be okay to smoke, if you are a farm woman in your 60s or 70s. Nonetheless, even amongst old women in the countryside, female smoking is exceedingly rare. In official government statistics, the North Korean government claims that the number of female smokers is zero. They are obviously reluctant to admit that some older women smoke. However, it is also true that the number of female smokers is very low indeed.
With respect to age, for North Korean men, it is commonly assumed that you take up smoking in your late teens, once you get involved in regular social and economic activity, i.e. start your compulsory military service or get a job. Nearly all North Korean men, including male soldiers, smoke. According to rumor, the late Chairman Kim Jong Il commanded that anti-smoking campaigns not be conducted in the military – smoking was a necessary way of relaxation the soldiers needed in their hard lives, he allegedly said.
Smoking is also seen as a normal way to socialize. Men smoke in groups, often exchanging their cigarettes, and this is when they talk about their life, work and all assorted problems. The tobacco is vital for social interaction in North Korea: If a man does not smoke, he might be isolated from his co-workers.
In North Korea, there is no stigma against smoking indoors. Many offices and houses smell strongly of tobacco smoke, but almost nobody sees it as a problem. Nobody in North Korean knows about the threats of the “passive smoking,” and it is seen as normal when men smoke where they work or live.
However, college students and high schoolers are not allowed to smoke, and if caught, will have to engage in self-criticism at mutual criticism meetings. The only exception are older college and university students. These people enter college after they have already finished their military serve. These people are in their late 20s and early 30s, they are often members of the party, and so they have spent much time smoking while under arms, and it is difficult for these adults to break the habit. However, even these students usually avoid smoking too openly or brazenly. It is clearly a bad idea for a student to openly smoke on campus.
Until recently … most North Koreans did not care all that much about the effects of smoking
North Korean men have a particular penchant for strong tobacco, with high tar and nicotine content, and this not good for their health. Another problem is that the common people, who form a majority of North Korean smokers, can seldom afford filter cigarettes – which are far more expensive and thus are smoked by officials and rich merchants. Instead, the common people smoke rollups, often using very strong homegrown tobacco, or at best smoke factory-produced cigarettes without filters.
Until recently, though, most North Koreans did not care all that much about the effects of smoking: They were almost completely unaware of the dangers involved. Even in the past, North Koreans were taught about the dangers of nicotine and tar at school, but such public health messages were not emphasized.
Things only began to change in the early 2000s, when Kim Jong Il decided to start a massive anti-smoking campaign. Since then, North Koreans have come to be frequently reminded that tobacco is bad for their health. In 2013, for example, North Korea conducted a number of events, related to the WHO-sponsored “World No Tobacco Day.” The North Korean media also runs articles where the dangers of smoking are well-explained. Until few years ago, such articles and TV programs were very rare, almost non-existent.
To some extent, the campaign has achieved some results. On May 30, an official from the Health Ministry told the KCNA news agency that the number of male smokers went down from 50.3 percent in 2009 to 43.9 percent last year. This report is difficult to believe, but one can see that number of smokers has gone down considerably.
Of course, now North Koreans are exposed to the view of Kim Jong Un, who is said to be a chain-smoker. He is often shown with cigarettes (usually, his favorite “7.27” brand), and this might make the life of the North Korean health educators more complicated.
Main image: The Pyongyang Times
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1013 words of this article.
Featured Image: North Korea soldiers in Pyongyang - North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2008-04-15 11:23:05