Cannabis in North Korea – Laws, Use, and History

The North Korean flag and an illustration of a cannabis field

North Korea is largely closed off to the rest of the world and is regarded as an illiberal country. In the past, experts have claimed that cannabis is not viewed as a ‘hard drug’ in the eyes of the law, and can be smoked, owned and even sold freely. However, the truth is a little less clear-cut – and hard to uncover in the ‘hermit kingdom’.

    • Capital
    • P’yongyang
    • Population
    • 26,351,000
    • CBD Products
    • not clear
    • Recreational cannabis
    • not clear
    • Medicinal cannabis
    • Illegal

Cannabis laws in North Korea

Can you possess and use cannabis in Korea?

North Korea is often regarded as a conservative country, with harsh laws against many offences. Although hard drugs such as heroin are illegal there, some experts claim that cannabis is not. Reports have even gone as far as to say that it can be freely smoked and even sold, without prosecution. 

A police car on the street and a man in uniform

For example, in 2013, Vice News reported that cannabis was widely smoked as ‘ip dambae’; a cheap alternative to tobacco.

However, it’s difficult to establish the truth of the situation, as few people visit the country. Torkel Stiernlof, a Swedish diplomat who lives there, states that cannabis is an illegal substance, and is classified as harmful as cocaine and heroin.

He told the Associated Press that: “There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here. One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offence to smoke it.”

Generally speaking, the law in North Korea is strict, with the death penalty in place for serious crimes. According to Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide database, regular executions are carried out in secret; and some are for drugs-related offences. However, as the outside world isn’t granted access to specific legislation, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.

Can you sell cannabis in North Korea?

It’s ambiguous whether it’s legal to sell or supply cannabis in north Korea, and conflicting reports make it hard to get to the truth of the matter. For example, Radio Free Asia (which is funded by the US government) released a story in 2018, stating that North Koreans were selling cannabis to Chinese and Russian tourists – from the special economic zone of Rason.

It’s thought that this cannabis was actually hemp, which doesn’t contain enough THC to achieve a high. Troy Collings, the MD of Young Pioneer Tours, commented: “I’ve seen and even purchased hemp, it doesn’t contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco … it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”

Can you grow cannabis in North Korea?

Without any official legislation to refer to, it’s difficult to say whether cultivation is legal in North Korea or not – though based on the limited evidence available, it’s probable that cannabis cultivation is a prosecutable offence.

Cannabis plants

However, cannabis grows in the wild in North Korea; particularly in the mountainous northern regions. There have also been reports of people cultivating cannabis in their gardens, though there is no official evidence to back this up.

Is CBD legal in North Korea?

Again, this is ambiguous. Although CBD contains low levels of THC (and therefore cannot provide a ‘high’), North Korea’s other drugs laws are strict, and may extend to the use or sale of CBD oil.

The chemical formula of CBD and a cannabis plant

Can cannabis seeds be sent to North Korea?

Without official legislation, it’s safer to presume that the sale and purchase of cannabis seeds is illegal in North Korea. This is also the case for sending them into the country by post.

Medicinal cannabis in North Korea

Unlike South Korea, which has recently stated its intention to legalise cannabis for medicinal use, North Korea shows no signs of doing the same.

Industrial hemp in North Korea

North Korea has an active hemp industry, as companies such as the Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory can testify. They make a range of environmentally friendly products from hemp. An official from the company informed the Associated Press that there are several varieties of hemp grown in the country; all of which contain very low levels of THC.

“No-one smokes this in our country,” she emphasised. “It’s only used for making things.”

According to a recent report, North Korea has one of the largest hemp cultivation areas in the world, with an estimated 27,500 hectares dedicated to growing the plant in 2004. Also in 2004, the country reportedly produced 12,800 metric tonnes of hemp, making it the globe’s third largest producer. Only China (38,000 metric tonnes) and Spain (15,000 metric tonnes) produced more.

Hemp plants

Hemp is cultivated across North Korea, with key growing areas located in North Pyongan, South and North Hamgyong, and Ryanggang. These are all northern provinces, and all share a border with China.

In 2008, North Korea’s government forcibly seized hemp sacks from farmers in North Pyongan and limited each person to a maximum of three hemp sacks each, which sparked ill-feeling among the community. This illustrates how important hemp is to the rural communities of this country.

Good to know

If you are travelling to North Korea (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • The goddess Mago / Magu was traditionally worshipped in North Korea. She was usually associated with the hemp plant, taking her name from the Chinese word for cannabis – ‘ma’.
  • It’s believed that some North Koreans choose to smoke cannabis as an alternative to tobacco. Cannabis grows widely and is cheap, while cigarettes are expensive.
  • According to The Bohemian Blog (written by the British travel writer and photographer Darmon Richter) it’s easy to purchase cannabis in North Korea, and smoke it in public without prosecution. However, this is just one person’s experiences and should not be taken as evidence that the North Korean authorities permit this.

History of cannabis in North Korea

Cannabis grows wild in North Korea and has done for centuries. It’s believed that it was first cultivated by farmers in 6,000 BC, though evidence to support this is scarce. However, findings in nearby China and Japan date hemp use back to 5,500 – 4,000BC and 4,000 – 2,500BC respectively, so it seems probable that it was also being used in North Korea.

A piece of hemp thread strung through a needle was found in the north of the country in 1979. It’s thought to date back to 4,000 – 2,000BC, to the Chulmun / Jeulmun Period. The Ye-Maek people that lived on North Korea’s east coast were also believed to have cultivated hemp, and near Pyongyang, the Painted Basket Tomb revealed fragments of hemp textiles.

Judging by the evidence found by archaeologists, hemp use continued uninterrupted over the years. In 1998, experts discovered a 16th century tomb in South Korea, which had a pair of hemp-bark sandals inside. It seems likely that both North and South Koreans never stopped using this plant, and continue to do so today.

Prior to World War II (and the creation of North and South Korea), the region had an active hemp trade with Japan. However, after the war, hemp was banned in Japan, and trading ceased accordingly.

Can you smoke cannabis in North Korea?

There is a lot of conflicting opinion online about cannabis smoking in North Korea. High profile online publications, such as the Huffington Post and Vice, have indicated that cannabis is widely available and users are seldom prosecuted.

For example, Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (a US-based human rights group) stated: “Cannabis grows wildly in North Korea and has even been sold abroad by government agencies as a way to earn foreign currency.”

He added: “Marijuana, which is known as ‘yoksam’ in North Korea, is not prioritised by the government and is therefore not treated as an illegal drug.”

Shirley Lee, international editor of New Focus International, agreed with Park’s statement. “With regards to marijuana in North Korea, it’s as good as legal – there’s no great stigma about it, nor does it have the sort of fetish that surrounds it in the West.”

However, other sources report a very different situation indeed; stating that cannabis use is illegal and that it is unwise to smoke it. Given how inaccessible North Korea is for the rest of the world, and how little is actually known about their laws, it is advisable to err on the side of caution.

Cannabis… or ip dambae?

According to a reporter in The Guardian newspaper, part of the confusion arises from the availability of ip dambae in North Korea.

Ip dambae is a blend of local herbs, which locals use as a cheap substitute for tobacco. It’s readily available across the country, and thanks to its appearance, could easily be mistaken for cannabis. The Guardian’s article also claims that smoking it will not get the user high.

However, the article lacks factual evidence to back it up. No tests were performed on ip dambae, which means it could contain cannabis after all. Instead, the reporter relies on the testimonies of ‘experts’, who may have ulterior motives for making the claims (for example, downplaying the role cannabis plays in North Korean society).

Hemp farming in the early Socialist era

Between 1957 and 1960, North Korea’s first president (Kim II-Sung) introduced inter-cropping of various food-plants, including hemp. This was to boost their yield and provide more food for the masses.

The president travelled to the north of the country, to develop local industries and encourage local self-sufficiency. In this part of North Korea, the mountainous terrain and short growing seasons make plant cultivation tricky, so Kim II-Sung directed the people to plant cold-resistant crops like hemp, tobacco, flax and wild sesame. He also ordered them to use the hillsides as livestock grazing grounds.

The ambitious plans continued. In 1962, the president called for a vegetable oil factory in every region, which would convert many of the crops into oil. He stated that every region should cultivate at least 300 – 400 hectares of hemp and flax, and that more textile mills should be established.

This relentless drive to boost productivity led to rushed attempts to meet targets, and ultimately, catastrophe for the country as a whole.

When Kim II-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-II, became president, many crops failed, due to bad weather, exhausted soils and denuded hillsides (not to mention corrupt diversion of resources). It’s thought that as a direct consequence of this, 2.5 million people died of starvation.

Will it be legalised in the future?

Without knowing exactly what North Korea’s laws are regarding cannabis use or supply, it’s impossible to say. The ‘hermit kingdom’ looks set to keep its secrets, and for outsiders, we can only make guesses, based on the limited evidence available.

Given how harsh their drugs laws are in general, though, it’s unlikely that cannabis will be officially legalised any time soon.

  • Disclaimer:
    While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.


9 thoughts on “Cannabis in North Korea – Laws, Use, and History”

  1. First of all, how could this have any effect on the legalization of weed in the U.S.? Why anyone would want to go to North Korea and risk being imprisoned for life beats me. If it was a free country, I would want to travel there. That’s really cool plant based drugs are legal there.

  2. Interesting article…..very informative, As for Agriculture in Ghana cannabis is not allow to be grown or used. Thanks for the splendid post

  3. This is an excellent article. One I never would have guessed. I appreciate the effort that went into writing this. Just goes to show how brainwashed we as citizens of the US are as to what goes on in North Korea, as well as other countries. Nice job Seshata!

    1. How so? By demonstrating that it is a plant that has immense uses world wide? Or by highlighting how ridiculous it is that in the “free” Nation we are less free to make personal choices than in the socialist hell hole of NK?

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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    Maurice Veldman

    Maurice Veldman is a member of the Dutch Association of Criminal Lawyers and one of the Netherlands’ most notable cannabis lawyers. With 25 years’ experience in the field, his knowledge of criminal and administrative law supports cannabis sellers and hemp producers by addressing the inequalities between the individual and the state.
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