Do you want to give a nice gift to a North Korean? You are probably right, if the recipient is a male, with a vintage liquor or a carton of tobacco. Approximately half of the country’s male population over 15 years of age, according to WHO calculations in 2018, are regular smokers. Among them, their supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, who is easy to see in official photos with a cigarette between his fingers.
This year of the Covid pandemic, in which it is more inadvisable than ever to develop respiratory diseases or complications derived from smoking, North Korea has launched a campaign to try to dissuade the population from quitting the harmful habit. Over the past few months, his official media had included comments or articles on the dangers of cigarettes, warnings that he retrieves from time to time. Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il —father of the current agent—, had declared in his day that “the three biggest fools of the 21st century are those who cannot use a computer, cannot sing and cannot stop smoking.”
This Sunday, the North Korean news agency KCNA —cited by the specialized page NKNews— published that “the new coronavirus normally invades (the human body) through the respiratory tract and lungs”, and assured that “doctors and experts around the world implore smokers to stop smoking, as they suffer a greater risk of becoming infected with the malignant virus. “
Now, according to KCNA, the country has taken a step further and has banned smoking in some public places. It cannot be done, for example, in museums or cinemas; not in hospitals or other health facilities, in public transport or in “political and ideological” centers. The ban, the agency adds, wants to provide “a hygienic environment,” and those who skip it will be penalized.
The new law, with 31 provisions and approved in the plenary session of the Presidio of the Supreme People’s Assembly —the North Korean Parliament—It also plans to tighten production and sale controls, to “protect the lives and health of the people.”
The big question now is whether Kim Jong-un will abide by the law as just another citizen to set an example or whether, as for many other things, he is above the law.
Kim has proven to be a heavy smoker, despite the fact that his excess weight makes his habit even more dangerous. North Korea already has a tobacco law since 2005, undertakes periodic campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of smoking, and the young leader also has a family history of illnesses related to that habit.
Often in official photographs of the events he attends, he can be seen with a cigarette in his hand, even if what he visits is a children’s hospital or a school. At first, his brand of choice was the exclusive 7.27, so named to mark the day of the armistice that ended the Korean War (1950-1953) and which can cost about 300 won per package. It is the equivalent of about three dollars (2.5 euros) and also three times more than an ordinary pack.
That was before. Now, analysts studying his images have been able to determine that he has changed his preferences, and these days he is leaning towards Konsol or Sonamu cigarettes.
On the way to the Hanoi summit with US President Donald Trump in February last year, Kim could be seen pausing on the way to stretch his legs and take a few hits. His sister Kim Yo-jong, his right hand, He carried an ashtray in which he disciplinedly collected the leader’s butt, a gesture that was then interpreted as a measure not to leave traces of DNA that could be used by a foreign secret service. This summer, a similar scene was repeated on a visit to a North Korean chicken farm: after the Marshal —how the population appeals to you— Throwing the remains of his cigarette on the ground, his sister bent to pick them up.
It is unlikely that someone outside the family circle —maybe just his wife, Ri Sol-ju—, dare to recommend that you quit the habit. At the time, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun recounted an embarrassing situation during a South Korean delegation’s visit to Pyongyang in 2018 to prepare for the first meeting between Kim and South President Moon Jae-in. Senior officials in the North were frozen with horror when the head of the neighboring country’s entourage, the director of South Korean intelligence services Chung Eui-yong, dared to comment to the leader that he should quit smoking to take care of his health. For a few seconds, no one dared to say anything. Until Ri, smiling, channeled the situation by assuring: “I always ask him to leave it, but he doesn’t listen to me.”
Precisely, one of the few situations in which Kim has been seen holding back the desire for a cigarette was in that April 2018 meeting with Moon on the border between the two countries. Korean cultural norms prohibit a young man from smoking in front of an older man. The South Korean president takes three decades out of him, and the North Korean leader, as much as he might fancy a few puffs during meeting hours, wanted to show him respect.