Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question is: Is it common for women to smoke in North Korea?
Editor’s note: North Korea recently appeared to be stepping up its anti-smoking efforts, introducing nicotine patches and launching a nationwide anti-tobacco campaign.
I’m not sure if things have changed since I left North Korea, but until 2012, people were tolerant of the elderly smoking and younger people couldn’t complain about it. You couldn’t show your displeasure at an elderly person smoking in front of you – it was considered rude for people to criticize the smoking habits of older people!
In North Korea, it is common for people to replace their wallpaper every three to four years, because it gets tainted from people smoking inside their houses. Some well-mannered people smoke outside their houses and refrain from smoking in the presence of young children, but people almost always smoke while drinking.
Cigarettes are much cheaper than liquor and many North Koreans smoke. While cigarettes imported from other countries are costly, of course, hand-rolled cigarettes are quite affordable. In rural towns, farmers plant tobacco seeds and when the leaves grow, they have them dried in the sun. Farmers have them cut into pieces and roll them up with pieces of paper. How simple is that! They are easy to make at a low cost.
They also taste better than cigarettes produced in North Korean factories, which are too strong. First-time smokers find it almost impossible to smoke factory-produced cigarettes, and once they get used to hand-rolled cigarettes, it’s hard to smoke anything else.
Until 2005, it was inconceivable for North Koreans to think that young women could smoke. Of course, we saw old ladies in their seventies and above do it, but it was unimaginable for us that younger women would too.
In North Korean society, people share drinks with everyone and there’s no hierarchy about alcohol, but it certainly exists when it comes to smoking.
It is very rude to smoke in front of your parents or anyone older than you. In North Korea’s patriarchal society, old ladies may smoke in front of their daughters-in-law, daughters or grandchildren. Yet, grannies never smoke in front of their sons, and they don’t smoke in public.
It was in 2008 when I saw young female smokers for the first time in my life: I saw several ajumma (middle-aged women) smoking while drinking.
In my teens I began to witness my classmates begin to smoke. I tried smoking for the first time when I was in the second grade of junior high school. My friends and I tried a cigarette together, not because we wanted to know what they tasted like, but because a friend of mine said that you could find out the family name of your future husband by looking at the tip of the cigarette.
At first, we all thought it was crazy but we thought there is no harm in trying. In North Korea, minors are allowed to purchase cigarettes and booze from a store. We ran straight to a nearby store and bought a packet of cigarettes.
As my friend smoked down a cigarette, we all stared at the tip of the burnt down cigarette. It really looked like a letter of the Korean alphabet. We became so thrilled that we took turns reading it one by one.
My friends excitedly said: “Oh my future husband is Lee! Mine is Kim!” I still vividly remember my friends excitedly talking about their future husbands over burnt down cigarettes!
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Adam Westerman
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