North Korean on the outside, foreign on the inside

Friday 17th April, 2015

Kim Jong Un breaks Kim Jong Il’s smoking ban order.

Kim Jong Un smokes in public. Photo taken from Rodong Sinmun.

Kim Jong Un smokes in public. Photo taken from Rodong Sinmun.

On December 2, sources in North Korea reported that the consumption of imported cigarettes had already been suspended for about ten days, and that a ban was issued regarding the import of foreign cigarettes. It was claimed that the order was initiated upon Kim Jong Un saying to cadres, “North Korean cigarettes are just as good as imports, so why be so unpatriotic by smoking imports?” During his lifetime, Kim Jong Il issued orders relating to cigarettes, initiating anti-smoking campaigns and ordering his officials to quit smoking. But while his father’s order had been more extensive in remit, this new order under Kim Jong Un singles out the ‘imports’ factor.

Kim Jong Il was known as a smoker, Dunhill even considered as being among his personal favourites. However he was seen to quit smoking in early 2000s, when upon claiming that “Cigarettes are like a gun aimed at your heart”, an extensive anti-smoking campaign was instigated. Accordingly, North Koreans were led to encourage one another with slogans to quit smoking.


“It hurt his heart to see our lives disappear, just like cigarette smoke,

And so our General made this request.

Cigarettes ruin our organs, more than alcohol does.

We must firmly quit smoking the moment we resolve to start.”

Yongsong Associated Tobacco Company oversees the manufacture of North Korea’s cigarettes. This is also the company which, during Kim Jong Il’s rule, produced counterfeits of well known cigarettes brands in collaboration with Chinese companies, bringing in sunstantial amounts of foreign currency. There exists also entities such as the ‘Nae-Gohyang (My Homeland) Tobacco Factory’, but most foreign currency earnings came through Yongsong.

Even during the ban, it was not observed in entirety, but intended more to serve the purpose of normalising price stabilisation in the sphere of cadres’ economic activities. But what remained of the policy of Kim Jong Il was effectively broken by Kim Jong Un appearing on the first page of the Rodong Shinmun with a cigarette. Though cadres had continued to smoke discreetly during Kim Jong Il’s smoking ban, they became now automatically “permitted” to smoke in the open on the basis of Kim Jong Un’s official inability to “quit smoking”.

This is the reality of a cult-centred system and enforcement structure – presentation of the Supreme Leader, as well as his reported speech – serves as the basis for alignment. Though we can imagine that Kim Jong Un’s accompanying ban on “imported” cigarettes might therefore continue another hidden war with tobacco, it is likely that this will not be the case. For those cadres who had been enjoying genuine (as opposed to counterfeit) imported cigarettes, they understand too well the difference in quality between North Korean made and foreign made products.

Kim Yong Shik, a high level defector, says, “Kim Jong Un may be seen to give such orders, but ultimately the Yongsong Combined Tobacco Corporation can already produce cigarettes-on-demand at the request of the elites, so the ban won’t lead to much disturbances on the ground.”

Kim continued, “Yongsong Combined Tobacco Corporation used to be famous for its earnings of foreign currency through the production of counterfeit cigarettes, and they could make ‘fake genuines’. When elites place orders for cigarettes, what they do is produce local cigarettes with imported tobacco inside. They are effectively ‘special’ North Korean cigarettes that are Yongsong on the outside, but still taste like foreign cigarettes when you smoke them. Elite cigarettes often have ‘Dunhill tobacco leaves’ in them, and have a trade value of over two dollars per packet. Even so, the demand for them has not decreased,” he said.

He added, “Through the development of the informal market, elites have changed in the way they think, and the attitude they have in responding to Kim orders. They won’t necessarily follow orders genuinely, for example, by really switching from imported to local cigarettes, because they already know the taste of foreign cigarettes. This is not limited to just cigarettes; once any high-quality product is introduced to North Korea, that relationship between Kim orders and cadres’ responses becomes jeopardised.”

What might the impact of ‘Kim Jong Un’s imported cigarette ban’ have on ordinary North Korean citizens? Park Jeong-Hye, born in Hyesan, escaped in 2013. She explained the smoking culture and atmosphere observed among ordinary citizens: “In North Korea, your status can correspond to what kind of cigarette you smoke. The standard is the “Cat Cigarette” (Raison). Most people try not to smoke anything of a lesser quality or standard than that.”

She continued, “Because it is expensive people don’t smoke as much. Some even buy one packet and then re-sell individual cigarettes illegally, which is now a very common sight. Now, as the market becomes more diverse, people buy whole packets, if they can afford it. Mostly, it’s the university students and young people under twenty-five years of age who buy the cigarettes individually.”

Regarding the new ban, “Even ordinary citizens want to smoke the ‘cat cigarettes’ over local ones so badly, it is questionable whether Kim Jong Un’s ‘ban on imported cigarettes’ will have any real effect. I don’t think that it will. They will smoke imports even if it is illegal.

“No matter how hard Kim Jong Un tries to enforce such a ban, foreign cigarettes will be smuggled via China into the marketplace. The markets remain steadfast despite many prohibition orders. Elite official or ordinary citizen regardless, Kim’s words won’t sway conformity in this regard.”

Kim Jong Un’s ‘ban on imported cigarettes’ can be seen as an opportunity to test how much influence new ratifications have among the North Korean people. However, it appears that market forces have already surpassed their de facto validity. Escapees from both elite and ordinary backgrounds alike agree that the largest source of change in North Korea has been and continue to be these market forces. This means that the Kim system’s power of enforcement have reached a point of being ineffectual in the realm of economic needs and wants. Simply by looking at one small thing – cigarettes – we can see what has been driving change and weakening the capacity of systemic ratification enforcements in North Korea. It is not decisions forced from above, but realities forced from below.


Reporting by Shin, Junshik


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