ANDONG, South Korea – In 2020, South Korea designated the country’s southeastern province of Gyeongbuk as a regulation-free zone for hemp, making it the center of the country’s cannabis industry. The city of Andong in the province, which has traditionally grown hemp fabrics for thousands of years, has since been the hub of the project.
The special zone is the first and only place in the country where licensed farmers are legally permitted to plant and cultivate cannabis for export and medical purposes.
Like other East Asian countries, South Korea has strict laws against the use of cannabis. Under the anti-drug laws, a person who smokes or trades the plant could face up to five years in prison.
Kim Soo-bin, 28, the CEO and co-founder of South Korea’s start-up Imagination Garden, grows cannabis in the special zone in Andong. The young farmer is one of the first farmers that has grown the plant for medical use in the special zone with smart farming technology.
Kim Soo-bin, 28, believes in the medical potential of cannabis. Photo: Chanhee Kim
It was not a smooth journey for the farmer. Kim faced backlash and objections from public officials and even from his acquaintances. “Since the first thing Korean people associate with cannabis is drugs, some made fun of me calling me a ‘junkie bastard,’” Kim told VICE World News during a recent visit to the special zone. “But it’s because of their lack of knowledge.”
Kim said there is still a long way to go for the country to utilize cannabis for medical use.
“I don’t intend to make a radical argument. I’m not saying we have to legalize it for recreational use, but we need to use the benefits from the plant known to be good for diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.”
Imagination Garden grows cannabis vertically using artificial light. Photo: Chanhee Kim
The relaxed legal environment is paving the way for wider acceptance of the medical use of cannabis in South Korea. Photo: Chanhee Kim
Kim said there are still too many regulations and restrictions.
While South Korea legalized weed for medical use, it is far more complex in practice. “The law is too slow to keep up with the level of social change,” he said.
“Although the laws allow it for medical use, the government has placed further restrictions through specific rules,” Kang Sung-seok, an activist pastor and the representative and founder of Korea Medical Cannabis Organization, said in a phone interview with VICE World News.
“The government allows patients to access only a small number of medicines for some diseases. And it also requires patients to get approvals from doctors in a very limited number of hospitals,” he said.
Additionally, local public information still stigmatizes use of the plant. When the government and media companies mention THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main component in cannabis, they mostly add the adjective “hallucinogenic” ahead of the word.
The farmer claims it is unscientific and one of the biggest prejudices against cannabis.
“This is wrong framing saying that the component could cause hallucination,” Kim said. “I’m not saying it is always absolutely good for everyone’s health but what it has is actually not hallucination effects but relaxation effects.”
Kim said while most people acknowledge the usefulness of another component, CBD or cannabidiol, the public receives unscientific information about THC.
A recent survey suggests more than one in three Koreans are aware of the medical effects of cannabis. Photo: Chanhee Kim
Indoor farming technology enables year-round production at Imagination Garden. Photo: Chanhee Kim
In spite of these obstacles and challenges, Kim said he is encouraged by the slowly shifting views toward cannabis.
“At least, these days, Korean people don’t ask me why you are doing this unlike the past years. This means the people at least roughly understand some components are good for us. This is a significant improvement.”
According to a survey released last month, more than one in three Korean respondents said they were aware of the medical effects of cannabis or had heard about it.
Kim Soo-bin said there’s prejudice against the use of THC in South Korea. Photo: Junhyup Kwon
Gyeongbuk is South Korea’s first regulation-free zone for hemp. Photo: Junhyup Kwon
For now, the farmer is focusing on optimizing the quality and quantity of the green plant under any conditions through smart and vertical farming.
“We have applied modern technology to the cultivation in order to achieve the same results all year-round and minimize the expenses. For example, we made the settings for how often and how we would supply water to the plant, how long and how many times we would give light. It’s not difficult to apply the technology if you comprehend its nature based on research.”
The farm houses are in all indoor spaces. “We have grown all hemp indoors because of its nature,” Kim said. “The pollen can easily spread through the wind and it can be pollinated accidentally. When it is pollinated, the components we are targeting from the plant are almost gone.”
He said his team also makes the plant shorter with some tweaks of its own technology. “We make the plant shorter intentionally because it usually grows up to three meters (9.84 feet) by nature but the hemp stem is only useful for hemp fabrics, not for the main components.”
Imagination Garden makes the hemp plant shorter to boost output. Photo: Chanhee Kim
The hemp plant is grown indoor to prevent the wind from blowing off the pollens. Photo: Chanhee Kim
There remains some skepticism over the ambitious project.
Kang, the activist, said the way of designating the special zone reminds himself of what North Korea does for its economy. “The government allowed the companies to export their output from the special region but realistically I don’t think it could be competitive to other output with a competitive price from other countries where there are no restrictions.”
Kang hopes the country will make more drastic changes beyond the special zone and the ambitious project.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in South Korea hope the country could further deregulate the industry. Photo: Chanhee Kim
“Since the first thing Korean people associate with cannabis is drugs, some made fun of me calling me a ‘junkie bastard,’” said Kim Soo-bin, CEO of Imagination Garden. Photo: Chanhee Kim
Kim said he is encouraged by the shifting views toward medical cannabis, but challenges remain. Photo: Chanhee Kim
Kim is confident about the future of the product he’s growing.
“There must be a social impact when sick people get better because of the plant,” he said. “The patients and their family must be desperate. Wouldn’t it be nice if this could give a little hope or the patients could get better?”
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