North Korea tells its people to stop smoking. Can Kim Jong Un quit, too?
By Choe Sang-Hun
North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament adopted a law this week introducing smoking bans in public places, such as theaters, schools and hospitals. But the country’s latest anti-smoking campaign, which includes penalties for violators, faces a challenge: North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is a regular smoker.
For years, North Korea has urged its people to quit smoking, posting no-smoking signs on public buildings and starting a national anti-smoking website. And for years, Kim has continued to puff away, despite a family history of smoking-related illnesses.
The new “tobacco-prohibition law,” unanimously adopted by the Supreme People’s Assembly on Wednesday, “stipulates the rules which all the institutions, organizations and citizens must follow in protecting the lives and health of the people and providing more cultured and hygienic living environments,” said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday.
According to South Korean and U.S. officials who have met Kim, no one in the country, except for perhaps his wife, Ri Sol-ju, can tell him to quit. The totalitarian “Supreme Leader” of the isolated nation is considered faultless and above the law. People are taught to treat him as godlike.
On North Korean state media, Kim can often be seen taking a drag of his cigarette while inspecting factories, talking with missile engineers, riding the subway and even visiting schools and children’s hospitals.
In 2017, North Korea’s state-run Central TV carried footage of Kim strolling yards away from a liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile. He appeared to be casually holding a cigarette, leading some commentators to wonder whether Kim’s habit could cause a nuclear disaster.
Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is still widely revered among North Koreans as the founder of their country. When he was alive, he often appeared in public holding a cigarette.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim has tried to resemble his grandfather in his looks, wearing short hair and a Mao suit. Outside analysts have speculated that Kim also gained weight to copy his grandfather’s build, as part of a propaganda strategy.
The Kim rulers in North Korea have had a history of cardiovascular diseases that South Korean intelligence officials have attributed to heavy smoking, drinking and obesity. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 of heart failure. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, suffered a stroke in 2008 and died of cardiac arrest in 2011. Kim Jong Un himself has been plagued by rumors of poor health, including diabetes, cardiovascular trouble and ankle pains caused by his weight.
Kim Jong Un was already drinking and smoking when he was in his teens, according to a Japanese sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who served the Kim family in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and later recounted his experiences in memoirs and interviews.
Kim Jong Il, introduced the first anti-smoking campaign in North Korea. He famously said, “the three greatest fools of the 21st century are those who can’t use the computer, can’t sing and can’t quit smoking.”
“The cigarette is like a gun pointed at your heart!” said one of the anti-smoking slogans North Korea adopted under Kim Jong Il.
More than 46% of adult men in North Korea were smokers in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. But defectors from the country said that the percentage could be much higher, as men take to smoking in their teens as a source of entertainment in a place with few alternatives. North Korea claims that no women smoke.
A common joke among North Korean men, according to defectors, is that it is possible to go “one day without eating, but no days without smoking.” Packs of cigarettes are used to bribe North Korean officials, they say.
The lifelong smoker, Kim Jong Il, stopped smoking after a stroke, but was said to have resumed before he died, according to South Korean officials.
His son, too, has found it hard to kick the habit.
According to Bob Woodward’s recent book “Rage,” when the American nuclear envoy, Andy Kim, met Kim in 2018 in Pyongyang, he saw the North Korean leader light up and told him it was bad for his health. Kim’s top aide, Kim Yong Chol, and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, both froze. No one in North Korea ever spoke to their leader that way, except for one person. According to Woodward, quoting Andy Kim, Ri acknowledged that was right: “I’ve told my husband about the dangers of smoking,” she said.
And in July, two months after North Korea announced that it was expanding its no-smoking zone policies, Central TV showed Kim inspecting a new general hospital under construction in Pyongyang.
He was smoking.