Long-time VICE contributor Alex Hoban has been covering North Korea for us for years, but it turned out he had so much to say on the topic he decided to start a news site dedicated to the country. NK NEWS is the result, and since it relaunched last September it's been running great daily stories like the one we're featuring here. So go check out the site, follow them on Twitter, and, if you're feeling super daring, they've also got this mysterious sign-up sheet that offers you a chance to join them on their next adventure inside the hermit kingdom.
North Korea, the most tight-lipped, conservative, and controlling country in the world is also a weed-smoker’s paradise. Despite the government’s deadly serious stance on the use and distribution of hard drugs like crystal meth (which has a notorious legacy in the country), marijuana is reportedly not considered a drug. As a result, it’s the discerning North Korean gentleman’s roll-up of choice, suggesting that, for weed smokers at least, North Korea might just be paradise after all.
NK NEWS receives regular reports from visitors returning from North Korea, who tell us of marijuana plants growing freely along the roadsides, from the northern port town of Chongjin, right down to the streets of Pyongyang, where it is smoked freely and its sweet scent often catches your nostrils unannounced. Our sources are people we know who work inside North Korea and make regular trips in and out of the country.
There is no taboo around pot smoking in the country – many residents know the drug exists and have smoked it. In North Korea, the drug goes by the name of ip tambae, or “leaf tobacco”. It is reported to be especially popular amongst young soldiers in the North Korean military. Rather than getting hooked on tar and nicotine like servicemen in the West, they are able to unwind by lighting up a king-sized bone during down time on the military beat.
Despite the fact the government doesn't crack down on the use of marijuana (or opium) and its prevalence among the common people, travelling weed enthusiasts eager to sample some NK bud will likely be disappointed. If a Western tourist asks his or her guide where is the best place to get the “special plant”, as it is euphemistically referred to, the guide will most likely eschew the question. Most of them are educated enough in Western legal attitudes toward marijuana to not feel the need to promote anything that might attract negative press. Then again, bring them a bottle of Hennessy and they might be more willing to help you out.
The reasons for smoking weed in North Korea differ from America. In North Korea, you don’t smoke just to get high and laugh at your own hand, you do it to save money and as a break from the ubiquitous cheap local cigarettes. In the black markets of North Korea, marijuana is commonly sold at a cheap price and is easily obtainable. Therefore, the drug is especially popular among the lower classes of North Korean society. After a day of hard manual labour, it is common for North Korean workers to smoke marijuana as a way to relax and soothe tight or sore muscles.
One of the great bits of North Korean mythology we’ve all heard a million times is that citizens may not fold their newspapers, lest they accidentally fold a picture of their leaders. But luckily not every page features those powerful, attention-seeking bossmen, so all the paper’s more easily recyclable parts (sports, weather, TV listings) end up being used to roll up tobacco and marijuana.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper is a favorite rolling paper among many North Korean smokers. It is cut up into squares, then rolled into small, cone-shaped spliffs. A source confirmed to NK NEWS that they had found a half-lit joint on the ground in a rural area of the country with the Rodong Sinmun used as rolling paper. The same source noted that, tragically, the weed in North Korea isn’t very strong.
Although weed grows naturally on the Korean peninsula, it is cultivated more formally in some areas. The herb is often grown in the private gardens of North Koreans. An American who travels to North Korea every year commented on Reddit, “We came to a garden one day and took one look and said, ‘that is weed!’ We went over and sure enough they were growing marijuana. I had heard it is used for medicine but finding it was interesting.”
Reports of marijuana use date back to the formation of the nation as it exists today. After the Korean War, US soldiers commonly plucked the herb from the DMZ areas near the North Korean border and smoked it. Stories of tents being hot boxed by tired fighters is a common recollection in the folklore of the difficult era.
Meanwhile back in the West, with the recent legalisation of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado, some Americans are clamoring for legalisation of the herb across the whole country. While this remains a controversial issue, the fact that marijuana appears to be commonly used in North Korea as a casual, cheap escape from an otherwise tightly controlled society suggests that for all the other worries they have to put up with, they do enjoy at least one perk denied to people like me living here in the land of the free.
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