Behind the Myth – Exploring Korean traditions, mythology, superstitions and folklore.
By Stephen Redeker
In North America, thousands of people will celebrate April 20 by partaking in the cannabis plant. “Four Twenty” is an unofficial holiday for members of the marijuana subculture to smoke and advocate for the legalization of marijuana. Although the herb is illegal at the federal level in the United States, its recreational use has been legalized in two states, Colorado and Washington. What about the status and view of marijuana in both Koreas?
In South Korea, it is well known that marijuana possession is illegal; in fact, it is considered a hardcore drug alongside heroin and crystal methamphetamines. Violators face prison terms of up to five years and fines of up to 50 million won. Furthermore, police can search for drugs and administer urine or hair follicle testing at any time. Testing positive for THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis, constitutes a violation of the law. Therefore, a culture of marijuana smoking is all but absent in South Korea. Can the same be said about North Korea?
There is a myth that marijuana is widely accepted in North Korea. Although it is surprising that a highly conservative nation-state would allow the use of a widely banned substance, there are numerous accounts and rumors of its cultivation and regular use. According to the Huffington Post, multiple defectors and visitors have claimed that marijuana use is permitted or at least tolerated in North Korea. While on a tour, a blogger from England reported buying a large amount of the herb at a market and publicly smoking it without any problem. Even the tour guide partook in the smoking and explained that marijuana is not criminalized in North Korea as it is in other countries. An anonymous North Korean source cited in a report by the Seoul-based Open Radio for North Korea stated that Kim Jong-un’s regime does not consider marijuana or opium to be a drug. Tourists even claim to have seen cannabis plants growing freely along the roadside, by railroad tracks and in gardens of private residences.
The Huffington Post and Vice have both reported that the use of marijuana is more common amongst the working class North Korean people. It is cultivated privately or bought cheaply at the market and smoked to relieve the aches and pains of daily hard work. It is also reportedly popular for military youth during their downtime to smoke marijuana, referred to as ip dambae (leaf tobacco).
Matthew Reichel, a frequent traveler to North Korea as the Director of the Pyongyang Project, told the Guardian that these rumors are false. Firstly, ip dambae may not be the same as marijuana; although it looks very similar, it is actually a combination of dried herbs and tobacco that does not have the same psychoactive effect as smoking the “real thing.” It is more of an alternative to cigarettes. Furthermore, government-approved cannabis plants are grown for their oils and other uses but do not contain high levels of THC. According to Reichel, some farmers may have amassed private stashes of marijuana, but it would not be smoked in public. Reichel claims that possession of marijuana would probably not lead to execution or banishment to a labor camp.
The myth about marijuana legalization in North Korea may only be verifiable by venturing north of the border. Traveling to North Korea for the purpose of enjoying cannabis would be a foolish risk. Testing the laws can lead to serious consequences, as seen in the case of a recently detained American tourist. The last thing anyone wants to face is a firing squad for firing one up.