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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
China exported tobacco products to North Korea worth more than $75 million last year, including more than two billion cigarettes and a few thousand tons of tobacco leaves, according to recent trade data published by the Chinese General Administration of Customs (GAC) and analyzed by NK News.
The numbers come as recent GAC data also show that North Korea’s alcohol purchases from China topped $30 million last year.
They also come after DPRK leader Kim Jong Un told senior Workers’ Party leadership last December that his country would have to “tighten our belts” amid the many sanctions-induced pressures squeezing the North Korean economy, put in place as punishment for the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program.
Smoking cigarettes is common among men in North Korea, and much less so for women in the country, according to multiple people who travel frequently to the DPRK and spoke to NK News on condition of anonymity.
The American Cancer Society estimates that North Koreans smoke 993 cigarettes per person per year — equal to about 49 packs.
In contrast to the DPRK’s two billion imported cigarettes, China shipped less than that total to South Korea, Japan, and the United States combined in 2019, according to the GAC.
All three countries have substantially larger populations than North Korea — but also have many other places to shop when buying tobacco products.
They also smoke at higher per-capita rates than the DPRK, according to the American Cancer Society.
The DPRK’s $75 million in tobacco imports also included more than 4.5 million kg of tobacco leaves from China last year, according to the GAC — perhaps to be used as raw material for the country’s cigarette manufacturers.
North Korea has an active domestic cigarette industry that includes multiple cigarette factories and numerous domestic brands.
Sources with experience traveling in the DPRK told NK News that one of the most prized domestic brands is called 7.27 — named in honor of the armistice date when fighting ended in the Korean War.
On at least one occasion, 7.27 cigarettes have been priced even higher than imported brands of tobacco.
Expensive cigarettes, like pricier alcohol, can be considered a status symbol among North Koreans who have the means to pay for them.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a heavy smoker himself, is said to have used the 7.27 brand himself, though he may have switched to another brand called Konsol, which translates to “construction.”
In 2014, Kim was said to have called for a ban on foreign cigarettes coming into the country, reportedly labeling them “unpatriotic.”
That demand does not seem to have lasted, however.
Sources also said that Japanese cigarettes — particularly a brand called Seven Stars — are especially desirable in the country.
One source told NK News that a pack of cigarettes in North Korea — Chinese or domestic — starts at about 4 RMB, or 57 U.S. cents.
At that minimum price per pack, the two billion Chinese cigarettes imported into the North would be worth about 400 million RMB, or $57 million.
The GAC, however, listed the value of China’s two billion cigarettes exported to the DPRK at just $35 million, suggesting that cigarette resellers in the DPRK may be turning a profit.
The DPRK’s cigarette industry has run into problems under international sanctions in the past.
American law prohibits the export of tobacco products to North Korea, part of a blanket ban on luxury goods.
In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted a Chinese shipping company, along with its Singaporean affiliate, for helping North Korea sell its tobacco products outside the country.
“The illicit cigarette trade in North Korea reportedly has netted over $1 billion per year for the regime,” the U.S. Treasury Department said at the time.
The DPRK government also seems to be at least nominally concerned about the health risks associated with smoking, which could affect smoking rates inside the country.
The North signed on to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, and warning labels increasingly appear on cigarette packaging, one source told NK News.
And last June, North Korean state media said that the country had taken “a step” to restrict the import of foreign-made tobacco.
That month, China’s reported cigarette exports were the lowest they had been since the previous September.
But overall, in 2019, China exported nearly twice as many cigarettes to North Korea as in the previous two years combined, according to the GAC.
December’s monthly total was the highest recorded in three years.
That same month, the North also imported nine kilograms of “cigars, cheroots & cigarillos containing tobacco,” worth $2,400, the data showed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham