Illustration by Erin Taj

North Korea’s Anti-Smoking Campaign Is a Battle of the Sexes

The Kim regime is leveraging feminine scolding to convince the country’s chain-smoking men to quit

It’s impossible to separate fact from bullshit when it comes to North Korea. But at least this much seems true: The men there smoke like an alley full of dumpster fires. Smoking is such a way of North Korean life that the regime, which is rarely down with international cooperation, has enlisted a policy adviser to the World Health Organization to help the country kick the habit (though the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is rarely seen without a cigarette in his hand). More true to form, it’s also run some fucked-up government TV programming — a 40-minute PSA of sorts called “The Extra Quality Favourite Item Threatening Life” — that attempted to get North Korean men to quit smoking by having women shame them. “[You’re] imbeciles who upset [your] surroundings,” the women scolded.

Smoking is oddly gendered in North Korea. More than half the men smoke — resulting in one of the highest rates of lung cancer in the world — while, allegedly at least, none of the women do. (Some evidence that outside groups have gathered backs up the government’s assertions: In 2012, the WHO reported a 0 percent smoking rate among North Korean women.) To help understand why lighting up is such a male thing in North Korean culture (and why it takes a woman’s scorn to get them to put their cigarettes out), we talked to Benjamin R. Young, a history Ph.D. candidate and North Korea scholar at George Washington University, whose traveling party scored a pack of knockoff Marlboros the last time they visited the Hermit Kingdom.

Why all the smoking in North Korea? Is it from the stress of living under such a repressive regime, or just something that’s considered Don Draper cool?
Smoking isn’t just an issue in North Korea. It’s a problem in both Koreas. A big reason why is because tobacco on the Korean peninsula is extremely cheap. And, of course, fun isn’t all that plentiful in North Korea, so it’s one of the few leisure activities they can participate in. The North Korean government is like, This is bad for your health, but at least you’re not rebelling against us. The government is putting up all these PSAs and anti-smoking campaigns, but most people just ignore them since they know it most likely won’t be enforced.

Which is interesting because you’d think that if the government was making it a point of emphasis, there would be harsh consequences for lighting up.
In North Korea, they prioritize certain laws. For example, there was a law that said you couldn’t ride bicycles in Pyongyang, the capital city. But it was never strictly enforced. It’s the same thing with smoking. They have these campaigns against it, but they’re not enforced. The reason is that the North prioritizes what it should clamp down on based on the things that could make the regime unstable. They know that smoking and bicycles aren’t going to upset the balance of the regime and also that bicycles are necessary for people to get around to markets. Today, there’s a gray-market economy in North Korea where the state knows it cannot supply rations to the people so it lets the black-market economy thrive. That’s why I consider it a “gray market,” because the state knows it needs this economy but doesn’t want to acknowledge its existence.

What brands do North Koreans smoke? Is there a domestic equivalent to Marlboro, Camel or American Spirits?
There are several brands in North Korea produced by several different companies who compete against each other. Some are more expensive than others; some are seen as status symbols. There also are some Chinese counterfeit cigarettes in North Korea. For example, when I visited North Korea in 2012, I went to a restaurant in the North Hamgyong province along the Chinese border that was selling authentic-looking Marlboros. But instead of M-A-R-L-B-O-R-O, it was spelled M-O-R-L-B-O-R-A. I’m pretty sure they were Chinese counterfeit cigarettes. I’m not a smoker, but my friend bought a pack because he thought it was ridiculous. He said they tasted terrible.

A lot of North Koreans hand-roll their cigarettes as well. They have their own rolling papers and their own tobacco that they may or may not grow on individual plots of farming land.

Photo courtesy of Benjamin R. Young

What do you mean by certain brands are seen as status symbols?
Before I went to North Korea, the tour operators recommended we bring either high-quality alcohol like Jack Daniels or American cigarettes because both are seen as gifts for the North Korean tour guides. If someone is smoking a non-Chinese foreign cigarette in North Korea, that person typically has higher status in society as they have better access to foreign goods.

Do tourists use these items as bribes to see things that weren’t government-sanctioned?
I wouldn’t call it bribing; I would say it’s more akin to tipping. Also cigarettes are better than alcohol at opening up North Korean tour guides. It’s like, “Here’s a cigarette we both could share.” It opens up a dialogue without the awkwardness at the start. Smokers have this community of, “We’re killing ourselves, but at least we can talk outside of restaurants and bars while killing ourselves.” So one part of it is tipping, but another part is using smoking as a way to talk to North Koreans to get them to open up.

In Europe it really does seem like everyone smokes. Did you feel that way in North Korea, too?
I felt that way in both Koreas — North and South. All of the guys chain-smoke. They drink and chain-smoke. It’s not healthy.

Is it propaganda that 0 percent of North Korean women smoke?
I’ve heard from others that older North Korean women smoke. I’m not sure they smoke openly, but I’ve heard that they will. They can do so because the older you are in Korean culture, the more respected you are — and the more you can get away with. One of the first questions Koreans ask you is how old you are. In the U.S. that’s considered a rude question, but in Korea, it’s important because your age depends on how another person will treat you. Even if you’re one year older than someone else, it changes the way that person interacts with you.

That still leaves a huge gender gap in smokers, though — 50-some percent of North Korean men to just a few older Korean women who do it in secret or private. Why do you think such a big statistical gap exists?
A lot of it probably is due to the fact that North Korean and South Korean males have compulsory military service. In North Korea, the mandatory military service is 10 years; in South Korea, it’s two and a half years. And when these guys leave the military, they’re chain-smokers. So it becomes hard to quit.

Why does the North Korean government believe that the one thing that will get men to quit is by having women shame them?
In North Korean mythology, revolutionary mothers hold an influential role. For example, Kim Jong-il’s mother, Kim Jong-suk, has a big role in North Korean propaganda. She’s a revolutionary, anti-imperialist mother who helped fight off the Japanese. These PSAs are kind of along the same lines — these North Korean women are being motherly and scolding men in that way.

How much of an influence is the Kim family’s affinity for smoking — especially Kim Jong-un’s need for a smoke at all times — on the rest of the North Korean people?
It’s huge. On the one hand, you have these PSA things about smoking. On the other, you have your obese man-child leader who is basically a chain-smoker. You always see him with a cigarette in his hand. North Koreans must think to themselves, Why should I listen to the anti-smoking campaign when the Great Leader is smoking?

If he’s still puffing away, why start a nationwide initiative to get everyone else to quit now?
This isn’t the first time these PSAs have come out. I think Kim Jong-il labeled smoking as one of the three great ills of the 21st century. As with most everything in North Korea, it might have to do with internal politics or issues that we’re not aware of outside the country.

So it could be something as simple as Kim Jong-un’s mom or wife wanting him to quit smoking?
That’s as good a guess as any. With North Korea, you never know. At best, it’s all just informed speculation.