It is often reported that cannabis is legal, socially acceptable and widely available in the Democratic Republic of Korea (commonly known as North Korea). The country remains closed-off and secretive, although occasional reports trickle through from defectors or visitors. Reports vary as to how acceptable cannabis use truly is.
History of cannabis in North Korea
Cannabis has been growing in and around the Korean Peninsula for millennia, and active intraregional trade ensured that knowledge of how to utilise it was passed between the people of ancient China, Korea and Japan. It is believed that the Korean Peninsula has been inhabited by hominids for over 500,000 years; the earliest examples of pottery date to around 8,000 BCE, and it is believed that settled agriculture began in around 6,000 BCE.
Archaeological evidence from North Korea in the modern era is sparse. Finds in nearby China and Japan, dating to 5,500-4,000 BCE and 4,000-2,500 BCE respectively, indicate that use in Korea must already have been established at this point (it is believed that hemp originally arrived in Japan via Korea). Evidence of a textile industry and impressions in pottery thought to be hemp cord date as far back as 5,000 BCE in the central Korean region, but hard evidence from that period is still lacking.
A piece of hemp thread strung through a needle, thought to date from the Chulmun (Jeulmun) Period of 4,000-2,000 BCE, was found in northern Korea in 1979. The Ye-Maek ethnic group that inhabited Korea’s east coast in the last few centuries BCE are thought to have cultivated hemp and silkworms. Near Pyongyang, the Painted Basket Tomb (c. 100 CE) was found to contain fragments of hemp textiles and yellow silk. The P’ungnap earthen fortress site near Seoul (c. 1 – 475 CE) has provided evidence of hemp fibre in ‘selective burial and dwelling places, probably reflecting wealthier individuals’.
In 1998, a 16th-century tomb of a 30-year-old man was excavated in Andong, South Korea; inside the tomb were a pair of hand-made sandals woven from hemp bark and—tragically—the hair of his distraught, pregnant widow, who also left a hand-written letter. It is likely that an active hemp industry continued throughout ancient times up to the very recent past. Prior to the Second World War and the resultant split into North and South Korea, the region maintained an active hemp trade with Japan, which lies just 50km off the coast of South Korea at its closest point, the tiny island of Tsushima. After the Second World War, the hemp industry was outlawed in Japan, and no further trade occurred.
Cultural use of cannabis in North Korea
The first uses of cannabis in Korea were likely to have been as a food and fibre crop. The importance of the harvest to early agricultural civilisations is fundamental, and as a result, worship of deities believed to bring favour to the harvest was universal throughout this period and throughout the world. The Chinese goddess Magu was also traditionally worshipped in Korea, where she was known as Mago. Magu has long been associated with the hemp plant, taking her name from the Chinese word for cannabis, ma, and the word gu, meaning girl or maiden.
The Korean art of papermaking, which began in around 150 BCE shortly after its invention in China, utilised hemp scraps and fibres from a similar local plant called ramie to make the earliest forms of paper, called maji (again, the Chinese root ma makes an appearance). While hemp fibre was gradually replaced by that of the paper mulberry tree over the centuries, due to the latter’s relative ease of processing, there is no doubt that it occupied an important and enduring cultural niche. The importance of paper to the emerging Korean Buddhist culture (for purposes of creating artwork and prayer scrolls) that began to develop in around 372 BCE also implies that the materials used to make the paper would be viewed as highly important in their own right.
In the modern era, reports abound of cannabis use by U.S. soldiers stationed around the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). Apparently, soldiers would simply pick wild-growing cannabis and take it back to their tents to dry and smoke it. Even today, one oft-cited example of cannabis use is by tired members of the North Korean armed forces hoping to unwind.
Today, use of cannabis appears to be widespread in North Korea. From the few reports of modern cannabis use in North Korea that have emerged in recent years (such as The Bohemian Blog’s interesting and oft-quoted account of a tour of the northern city of Rason), it seems that cannabis is used as a substitute for tobacco, and may even be viewed more kindly than tobacco by North Korean authorities. Good-quality tobacco is expensive and hard to obtain in North Korea, although cheap counterfeit and inferior quality products are widely available on the black market. The cheaper tobacco products are often adulterated with chemicals and non-tobacco plant materials, and cannabis is seen as preferable by many—and although cheap cigarettes are far cheaper than luxury brands, they are still reportedly more expensive than cannabis, which can be bought by the sack-full at local markets.
Cannabis is more popular among the working classes, and is often employed as a general relaxant after a day’s gruelling manual labour. It is reported that the typical method of consuming cannabis in North Korea is in the form of joints, which may be rolled with whatever paper is to hand, including newspaper and glossy magazine pages. Indeed, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper is reported to be particularly valued for this purpose. Visitors report that on touring North Korean cities, the aroma of burning cannabis is a frequent reminder of the ubiquity of its use. It is reported that cannabis is known locally in North Korea as ip tambae (which roughly translates to ‘leaf tobacco’) or yoksam; it is also euphemistically referred to as the ‘special plant’.
The ‘ip tambae’ confusion
In a piece entitled ‘Mythbusters: uncovering the truth about North Korea’, the UK broadsheet The Guardian asserted that ip tambae was in fact not cannabis but a blend of local herbs used as a tobacco substitute. They go on to state that ‘experts agree that cannabis is rare and most definitely illegal in North Korea’. The piece was apparently in response to visitor accounts such as that of The Bohemian Blog, which later published a follow-up.
The ‘experts’ they so confidently cite may have some claim to be experts on North Korea, insofar as there can be any real experts on a country so understudied by outsiders, but there is absolutely no indication that they are experts on cannabis. The expert in question is a man named Matthew Reichel, who has travelled to North Korea over thirty times as director of the Pyongyang Project, a social enterprise focused on promoting building initiatives. Reichel is quoted as stating, ‘It looks a little bit similar if you haven’t smoked a lot of weed’, but ‘if you smoke that stuff it’ll smell weird but it won’t get you high’.
They acknowledge the fact that industrial hemp is grown throughout North Korea, but state that it contains ‘just a fraction of the THC found in regular cannabis’; they also state that it may be possible for farmers to cultivate their own stash, but that ‘the drug would certainly not be smoked in public’.
Certainly, the cannabis growing wild in North Korea is likely to be low in cannabinoids, but to insist that it cannot cause intoxication and is not the substance known as ip tambae seems somewhat presumptuous. Given the authoritative tone of the piece, one would expect The Guardian to provide the results of laboratory testing confirming that ip tambae does not contain cannabis (and demonstrating that all wild-growing hemp in North Korea contains 1% THC or less!); that they have not, and instead rely on the testimony of lay ‘experts’, seems extremely dubious. Indeed, it seems possible that visitor accounts are in fact accurate, and that an attempt at damage limitation is being made, resulting in misinformation being given to media outlets.
We labour under many illusions regarding industrial hemp. The THC content of industrial hemp is largely kept low through selective breeding, and when left to grow unrestricted in the wild, this content varies and may in some specimens be sufficient to cause intoxication. There are reports of Polish labourers in the pre-World War II period succumbing to intoxication when harvesting the hemp fields; unofficial ‘visitors’ to the hemp fields in the U.K. have also reported finding specimens which produce noticeably higher quantities of resin.
Thus, stating that hemp cannot cause intoxication shows ignorance of what hemp actually is—which is forms of cannabis naturalised to more northerly latitudes (40-65°) that typically contain lower (but not non-existent) cannabinoid concentrations than their southerly counterparts. North Korea lies around the 40th parallel, southerly enough for some cannabinoid production to naturally occur. The modern legal limits for THC content are social constructs, and were unknown prior to the late 20th century.
Cannabis cultivation in North Korea
According to available reports, cannabis grows wild in North Korea, and is ubiquitous throughout the country. It is also reported that many people have a few cultivated plants in their gardens or vegetable plots, and large-scale cultivation may exist to some extent, although no documented evidence of this exists. Sokeel Park, leader of the California-based NGO Liberty in North Korea, has alleged that cannabis has been sold abroad as a way to boost foreign revenues (no doubt destined for the Kim family’s secret slush fund, which is also linked with laboratory production of methamphetamine).
Visitors to North Korea describe cannabis plants growing abundantly at the side of the road, in gardens, and along train tracks. Indeed, it is reported that cannabis is intentionally cultivated along train tracks as its long roots help stabilise the ground.
A member of the popular message board Reddit stated in an informal Q & A post that he travelled to North Korea every year, and had witnessed local cannabis-growing practices when visiting friends. He stated that it is rare to see it growing abundantly in the wild, but that small-scale cultivation and personal consumption was common.
Industrial hemp in North Korea
North Korea has an active industry in hemp cultivation. In fact, according to a recent paper, North Korea had the world’s largest area under cultivation of any country, with 19,000 hectares of hemp plantations; China, for years the world’s biggest producer, at that time apparently had only 16,500 Ha under cultivation.
In 2004, it was reported that North Korea had produced 12,800 metric tons (MT) of hemp, rendering it the world’s third largest producer after China (38,000 MT) and Spain (15,000 MT). Elsewhere it was reported that North Korea had 13,000 Ha under cultivation in 2004, whereas China had 65,000 Ha. If this is the case, it would suggest that North Korea’s hemp harvest is almost twice as productive as China’s, as the former averages almost one metric ton per hectare (0.99 MT/Ha) and the latter just over half of that (0.58 MT/Ha).
Hemp is produced in most regions of North Korea, with hubs of industry located in Ryanggang, South & North Hamgyong, and North Pyongan—these are the four northernmost provinces and the four that share a border with China. Interestingly, the North Korean government in 2008 sparked ill-feeling among its populace by (among countless other things) forcibly seizing hemp sacks from farmers in North Pyongan and exacting a levy of three hemp sacks per person from families in North Hamgyong. This example serves to illustrate how important hemp continues to be for the impoverished masses of the secretive fortress that is North Korea.
In August 2008, South Korea’s Andong Hemp Textile Company and North Korea’s Saebyol General Trading Company merged to become Pyongyang Andong Hemp Textiles, the first north-south joint business venture to open in the North Korean capital since the post-Korean War division into North and South. The new company suffered severely under trade bans instigated by South Korea in 2010; the bans have now been lifted, but trade has not yet reached the levels maintained prior to the ban.
Hemp farming policies of the early Socialist era
In a move similar to Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward (during which collectivised farming methods were forcibly imposed on the rural population, with catastrophic results), North Korea’s first president Kim Il-Sung imposed inter-cropping of various crops between 1957 and 1960, including hemp with beans and potatoes, in order to increase productivity.
In 1959, Kim Il-Sung travelled to North Hamgyong Province in the extreme north of the country as part of an initiative to assess and develop local industries, in an effort to achieve local self-sufficiency. Although heavily industrialised, the province was and is largely unsuitable for arable farming due to its mountainous terrain and short growing season; however, Kim directed the province to establish cold-tolerant crops such as hemp, sugar beet, tobacco, flax and wild sesame, and to turn hillsides into grazing grounds for livestock.
At the 1962 Changsong Conference, Kim Il-Sung called for a vegetable oil factory to be established in every county, which would press oil from beans, hemp seed, sesame seed, and maize. He went on to state that each county should cultivate at least 300-400 hectares of hemp and flax, and that a textile mill should be opened in each county. His constant exhortations to increase productivity led to sloppy, rushed attempts to meet the stated targets, which contrasted sharply with more sustainable but less productive traditional techniques.
While the consequences of these countryside policies in North Korea were not as severe or as immediate as those experienced in China (and the enforcing of these policies perhaps not as brutal), under his son and successor Kim Jong-Il in the mid-1990s, environmental disaster and famine struck due to a combination of bad weather, exhausted soils and denuded hillsides (as well as corrupt and irresponsible diversion of resources). It is believed that up to 2.5 million people died of starvation as a direct consequence.
Cannabis laws, arrests and sentences in North Korea
It does not appear that there is any cannabis-specific legislation in North Korea. Furthermore, although the country has been a member of the United Nations since 1991 and has ratified all major treaties including the Single Convention against Narcotic Drugs and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, it has apparently not legislated to bring itself in line with the requirements of the treaty, at least not with regards to cannabis.
Drug law in North Korea is generally extremely strict, although it seems that the authorities do not view plant-based drugs such as cannabis and opium with the same approbation reserved for synthetic, highly-addictive drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin (although recent reports suggest that methamphetamine production has skyrocketed to the point that its use is now widespread and socially accepted).
North Korea retains use of the death penalty for the most serious crimes, and according to Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide database, executions are routinely carried out in secret, with at least seventy occurring in 2013. It has been reported recently that the criminal code has been modified to include capital punishment for using and dealing drugs; it is not known how many of those executed have been charged with drug-related offences. Although specific legislation appears to be unavailable or non-existent, it is thought that capital punishment may even be applied to cases of drug possession.
Purchasing and using cannabis in North Korea
Travel in North Korea is heavily restricted; visitors are typically required to be part of an official tour group (which is perhaps the safest way to proceed) and local tour guides are typically reluctant to broach the subject of the ‘special plant’—perhaps due to official warning or guidelines, as it appears the authorities are aware of cannabis’ taboo status elsewhere. In a nation that relies heavily on bribes to ‘grease the wheels’ of the local economy, tour guides may be open to providing more relevant information if they are offered suitable recompense.
If lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough to visit North Korea, chances of accessing the infamous markets where locally-grown cannabis can be purchased are much improved if touring with high-ranking officials, who can open doors usually firmly-closed to the average tourist.
If able to access locally-grown cannabis at the market, one can expect to pay the equivalent of around €0.50 for a full carrier bag of seeded buds and leaves. Of course, the potency leaves much to be desired if one is accustomed to high-strength commercial hybrids, but many reports suggest that the fragrance, flavour and overall quality are more than acceptable.
With thanks to The Bohemian Blog for providing some excellent first-hand reportage of the situation in North Korea.