Sunday, 29 September 2013

On Smoking Weed in North Korea

A trip to a local market in Rason, North Korea offered a rare perspective on day-to-day life in the DPRK... as well as a surprising - and controversial - discovery.

NB. Since this piece was originally posted, new information has come to my attention regarding the legal status of cannabis in North Korea. I have now seen enough evidence to clearly suggest that cannabis is not, in fact, legal to purchase there. Please bear that in mind as you read this report. For further explanation, follow the link at the bottom of this post.


The discovery came during my recent tour of Rason in North Korea, at the time of the 2013 "Korean Crisis." The DPRK was - potentially - poised on the brink of nuclear war with the South, with Japan, the US, et al., and I was hanging out in a small port town somewhere near the Russian border.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

As is generally the case with tours to North Korea, I had visited as a part of a group. However, this was no ordinary group. Some of my contacts in the tourism industry - regular visitors to the DPRK - were putting on a 'staff outing' of sorts... and I'd been invited along for the ride.

The details of the tour - as well as my own reflections on visiting the country at a time of seemingly imminent war - are the subject of my post on the 2013 Korean Crisis. What follows here, are the parts I left out.


Rason Market

One of our Korean guides - a Mr Kim [1] - was claimed to represent North Korea's own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and having him around ended up unlocking doors for us; doors which usually remained firmly closed to tourists. On the standard North Korea tour package, a group will be allotted two Korean guides. It's their job to keep you in line - a job which they usually handle with a cheerful yet firm approach:

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

Don't go in there.
Don't photograph this.

I can't answer that... but wouldn't you rather hear about our Dear Leader's birthday celebrations?

Fearful of getting into trouble with their superiors, most North Korean guides err on the side of caution. They'll impose a blanket ban of no photography from the tour bus, and if there's ever any doubt the answer will invariably be "no."

Our Mr Kim was able to speak with confidence, though. When he answered in the negative it was absolute; but there were plenty of other occasions when he'd be able to flash his ID card, or call ahead to authorise our entry into restricted areas.

One of the first places we were to visit was the local bank.

As we arrived, two Korean girls in make-up and high heels were struggling to carry a sports bag, heavy with banknotes, to the back of a waiting taxi. Inside the building security seemed slim, and rather than through a reinforced glass counter, business was conducted in one of a series of simple offices.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

We queued up to change our Chinese Yuan into the local currency: North Korean Won. I was aware just how unusual this was; the majority of tourists in the DPRK will be spending Chinese or US currency, and are usually restricted from handling the local notes. With an exchange rate of roughly ₩1,450 to £1 (or ₩900 to $1), the notes were numbered into the thousands. Different denominations bore the face of President Kim Il-sung, an image of the president's birthplace at Mangyongdae-guyok, the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang and, on the ₩200 banknote, a likeness of mythical flying horse, Chollima.

Carrying roughly one quarter of a million Won between us, we headed down to the market. Up until a few years ago, Rason's market was off-limits to tourists for a long time; a friend in the company told me the closure followed an incident in which a Chinese tourist was pick pocketed. He had reported the theft to his embassy, and pushed for recompense from the North Korean tourism industry. As a result of the international drama which followed, North Korea decided it would be simpler not to let foreigners enter the market at all.

Mr Kim made a few calls, and pretty soon we were heading inside. We were urged to leave our wallets on the bus, instead taking a handful of local banknotes concealed in an inside pocket. Cameras were also strictly forbidden.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

The market was a sprawling maze of wooden tables, overflowing with everything from fruit to hand tools. Immediately upon our entrance, a wave seemed to move through the crowd as several hundred pairs of eyes turned to assess the intrusion. If the streets of Pyongyang and other North Korean cities may appear empty, even desolate at times, this place was the exact opposite... and I was struck by the sense of having stumbled across that fabled thing which seems so hopelessly impossible to find: the 'real' North Korea.

As our group separated, moved through the stalls and began to mingle with the bemused locals, our Korean guides floated about us like owls on speed. In situations like these, there is much scope for speculating the punishment that would await them (and according to some, by association, their families) were they to lose sight of their Western wards. Luckily for them however, we didn't exactly blend in.

It was interesting to see the range of reactions that our presence elicited from the unsuspecting people of North Korea. Some gasped in shock, covering their mouths and nudging their friends to look at us; children waved, giggled, shouted "hello" and then ran away; vendors called and beckoned us to browse their wares. Everywhere I looked there was a movement of heads turning quickly away - everybody here wanted a good look at the strangers, but most couldn't hold our gaze.

One elderly man in a tired military uniform followed us through the market, scowling from a distance. Several times I felt tiny hands patting at my trouser pockets, then turned, to see dirty-faced children peering out from the crowds. On one occasion I was confronted by an actual beggar - it's still the first and only time I've seen a North Korean ask a foreigner for money, and something which the DPRK leadership does its absolute best to stamp out.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

I yearned in pain for my camera, my shutter finger itching like a phantom limb.

At one point we bumped into a few of the girls from the massage parlour we'd visited in Rason. They stopped browsing to chat with us, and, for just the briefest of moments, I could almost have believed this wasn't the strangest place I had ever been.

Things were to get a whole lot stranger though, as we approached the covered stalls at the heart of the market. While the outer yard had been stocked with fruits, vegetables and all manner of seafood, Rason's indoor market is a repository for every kind of bric-a-brac you could care to think of... and most of it imported from China.

Shoes, toys, make-up, lighters, DIY tools that look around 40 years old, clothing, military uniforms (which we were forbidden from buying), spices, chocolates, soft drinks, dried noodles, bottled spirits, beer and a whole aisle lined with mounds of dry, hand-picked tobacco.

We were just walking past the tobacco sellers when we spotted another stall ahead, piled high with mounds of green rather than brown plant matter. It turned out to be exactly what we first suspected: a veritable mountain of marijuana.

In the name of scientific enquiry, it seemed appropriate to buy some... and the little old ladies running the stall were happy to load us up with plastic bags full of the stuff, charging us roughly £0.50 each.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

The natural conclusion was that it was legal to buy here. We decided to test the theory, purchasing papers from another stall before rolling up and lighting comically oversized joints right there in the middle of the crowded market. Bizarre as the situation was, it seemed a reasonably safe move - and with several hundred people already staring at us, we weren't going to feel any more paranoid than we already were.

At another stall we bought live spider crabs for our dinner, before leaving the market to continue the grand tour of Rason - with just one difference. From this point onwards, every time our group was walking on the street, sat in a park or being shown around some monument or other, there would be at least two fat joints being passed around.

Later that day, we visited a traditional Korean pagoda situated in a nearby village.

"This monument celebrates the fact that our dear leader Kim Jong-il stayed in this very building during one of his visits to Rason," our Korean guide was telling us.

"Far out," someone mumbled in reply.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK


















Getting High on the Bad Times

That night we settled down for a meal at a private dining room in the Kum Yong Company Restaurant. It's one of Rason's tourist-friendly eateries, by which I mean that the service and surroundings had been so carefully and thoroughly Westernised, as to give little or no impression of how real locals live. I guess the same could be said for five-star hotels the world over, though.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

One member of the group was celebrating a birthday, and the cake was the first thing to reach our table. This was followed by the usual selection of hot and cold platters (kimchi, salad, fried eggs, battered meat and bean sprouts) while the kitchen prepared the crabs we had bought from the market earlier.

All this time we were rolling joint after joint, without tobacco, and the air in the room was thick with sweet, herbal fumes. In fact, coming back from a trip to the facilities I was almost unable to find my chair again - until my eyes grew accustomed to the severely reduced visibility.

Once or twice the waitress came by to collect plates, and, coughing, made mock gestures of trying to sweep the clouds away with her hands. She didn't mind at all, but rather seemed perplexed how something so commonplace could cause such unprecedented excitement.

In the corner of the room, a small television set was doing all it could to keep us abreast of important current affairs. The news presenter - an impassioned middle-aged woman with immaculate hair - was talking about a potential attack from South Korea, about US manoeuvres on the Korean Peninsula. Suddenly I remembered that I was in a country threatening to launch nuclear warheads against its neighbours, and that the whole world was holding its breath to see what the next days would bring.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

The news programme came to an end, and was replaced by a film in which a Korean girl roamed the mountains in a fierce storm, looking for her lost goats. The waitress brought more beers, shots of the local rice wine known as Soju, and someone passed me a joint. I had already forgotten about the nuclear war.

It wasn't until the next evening - the last night of our tour - that Mr Kim decided to join us for a smoke.

We were sat around drinking beers in a hotel bar, just across the town square from our own lodgings. Here the waitresses were taking it in turns to sing for us, clutching cheap Chinese microphones as they performed note-perfect renditions of one (party-approved) karaoke classic after another. Many of these songs had once been written to celebrate the anniversary of a military victory... while each of the North Korean leaders is given their own orchestral theme (check out the Song of General Kim Jong-un, for example).

It was a pop song called Whistle that really got stuck in my head though, as it seemed to be on constant cycle during our trip - playing in shops, restaurants and offices. That evening I'm sure we heard it at least half a dozen times, and the melody would come back to haunt my dreams for weeks to come.

Sat around a long wooden table, we were drinking beer with our Korean guides - who up until this point had eschewed the weed.

They seemed to be ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with our discovery of their special plant; no doubt aware of its legal status in our own countries, it was their job to make sure we saw a positive representation of the DPRK. I don't think they had planned on chaperoning a giggling pack of red-eyed imbeciles around their country's proud military monuments.

I sat next to Mr Kim, who, dressed in his usual dark suit and glasses, looked every part the intelligence officer. He was snacking on strips of dried fish to accompany his beer, and he offered me some. By way of a polite gesture I offered him a joint in return, very much expecting him to refuse it. Instead he smiled, winked, and put his arm round my shoulder as he started puffing away on the fat paper cone.

Things got even more bizarre when the Russians arrived - a group of dock workers from the Vladivostok region, currently on leave in Rason and keen to get some alcohol inside them. One of my last memories of the evening is of knocking back large tumblers of Korean vodka with a walking stereotype of a man; he had the arms and chest of a bear, a square head topped with a white crew cut and a well manicured 'Uncle Joe' moustache... as well as a superhuman thirst for vodka.

Smoking Weed in North Korea | Illegal Drugs in the DPRK

















The first time I visited North Korea I saw the famous monuments in Pyongyang, walked along the Demilitarized Zone in the south, but remained very much aware of my distance from the world around me; I often felt as though trapped inside a bubble, which prevented me from any kind of real interaction.

Here in the rural northeast however, far removed from the leader's watchful gaze, things are very different. Chinese and even Russian contractors explore at their leisure, while Western tour groups are allowed far more freedom than anywhere else in the country.

My extra-curricular activities at Rason's bank, its market and its bars, were a window onto another side of life in the DPRK; and, while they often painted a picture of poverty and dependency, nevertheless it was a refreshingly honest experience compared to the theatrics and misdirection so typical of tours to North Korea.



[1] Our tour guide's name was not, in fact, 'Kim' but I felt it better not to implicate him too closely in this report. Considering almost a third of all North Koreans have the family name 'Kim' however, this seemed a reasonable substitute.


For a comprehensive critique of the unusual situations described in this report, check out Smoking Weed in North Korea: A Critical Review.


47 comments:

  1. Love reading about North Korea! Had no idea about the weed :-)

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    1. I've been reading more about it since, but the discovery came as a total surprise at the time. Who'd have thought it, eh? Made for a pretty surreal tour.

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  2. This might be the only interesting account of someone's North Korean travels that I've ever read. Good job. Who knew that pot is legal there?!

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    1. Thanks John, I take that as very high praise indeed.

      The 'blogosphere' does seem to be somewhat saturated with reports on North Korea these days... I'm glad I was able to offer you an original perspective!

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    2. I agree. The best North Korea article I've ever read. Thanks!

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    3. Thanks very much, Andy - glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Wow, this by far the most interesting article I have read on North Korea (it's also one of the most entertaining travel articles I've ever read). Absolute fantastic job. The weed bit is interesting and strange, for sure, but it's really cool to gain some insight into the 'real North Korea'. Love this, man.

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    1. That's extremely high praise - I'm flattered, and really glad you appreciated the piece. It was a real treat to be able to write about a side of NK that people don't hear so much about...

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  4. "Owls on speed" Hahaha, marvellous image. Sounds like you had a great time.

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  5. Awesome article and fascinating account of misadventures within a dictatorial regime. I'm actually writing a satire about a futuristic dictatorship, so I thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks for having the balls to go on the adventure, the luck to return, and the talent to share it.

    On a sidenote, it is ironic how we "free governments" in the west of the ones with dictatorial constraints on a medicinal plant.

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    1. Yes, that particular irony wasn't wasted on me. One of the most interesting things I find about North Korea in general, is the scope for comparison - the experience leaves you questioning a lot of things you took for granted back home.

      Good luck with your project, it sounds like fun!

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    2. Bummer to read elsewhere that the NK pot is pretty weak compared to its western counterparts. Were you able to get a decent buzz after several joints?-The Gearhead222

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    3. I guess this was just how you’d expect uncultivated weed to be anywhere in the world. Clearly there was no effort put into hydroponics, but rather the plant seemed to have been harvested from wild crops and then only partially-dried.

      Anywhere else in the world, without the novelty value of smoking it in North Korea, it might have been a bit disappointing. But yes – after smoking enough of the stuff, it still delivered that unmistakable buzz.

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  6. Well of course, the best way to get people mellow and happy with their situation is to make them high on THC.

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  7. I had no idea they light up in South Korea. Cool ! I guess they are leading the way just like Amsterdam.

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    1. As far as I know, it's still illegal in the South. But yeah - politics aside, there's something to be said for their relaxed approach.

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  8. This is why Dennis Rodman goes to North Korea...

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    1. B-ball and biftas. I'm surprised he ever came back!

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  9. It's no surprise to me that weed is legal there. Tyrannical rulers love to do whatever it takes to keep their citizens distracted from the stark realities of their rule. That is why the government here in the US is gradually moving towards legalization, and it's why it will most likely be legal before the next national elections.

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    1. I guess it's no surprise the culture warrior nutcases would take this view.

      Knowing, personally, how much hard work, hand wringing, blood sweat and tears has gone into the cannabis movement nationwide, all so they can simply go about their lives and pay taxes on their preferred folk remedy without culture-war-crazed nutcases violently seizing license to liquidate their assets and their freedom to pad the local towns bottom line... The situation as it exists, in reality, is so tragic and has seemed so hopeless for so long. It stings to see the honest dedication and hard works by so many Americans so callously dismissed by the puerile 'anything that's not us is tyranno-socialist-fascism!' crowd.

      It stings... but it's hardly surprising.

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    2. I can see the argument for calling legalisation a 'dumbing down' movement. Successful governments the world over are familiar with the art of distraction -

      However, I agree with Azi... and while I'm not an active part of it, I do have a lot of sympathy for the worldwide cannabis movement. Being allowed to farm, cultivate and privately use a crop which flourishes naturally seems like a fairly basic freedom to me... but that's a conversation for another time, I think.

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  10. Visits North Korea - Gets to visit outside the Circle of trust. - Finds Weed - Chong up a restaurant - and gets high with Mr Kim. You Win the best N Korea story ever in my book - no one else will ever match it.

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    1. Ha! Well, when you put it like that...

      Thanks very much though, I really appreciate the kind words! Glad you enjoyed the report.

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  11. Definitely one of the more interesting perspectives on somebody's travels that I've read in my time, and certainly refreshing to hear it from an unbiased and civil perspective... Not to mention that my opinion of their political structure has improved reasonably, evidently their system has the same number of pros and cons as any other, though arguably in different areas. I might even make a point to those who listen to American media by saying that the freedoms that matter are restricted the same everywhere, we just THINK we have more because they let us follow mind-numbing pop culture and have Facebook accounts? (Though try posting certain political content and you'll be shut down just as fast, without the legal penalties if you're lucky) Vote Obama or Romney or any other likely candidate, who cares as they'll both support the same war crimes in the Middle East, specifically Palestine and Syria? Kind of on par with a dictatorship when you think about it, just with the illusion of free choice to keep the people happy instead of legal cannabis, maybe? Anyway enough with the comparisons because it's the unique subject and writing style that brought me here and that made me follow your FB page, keep it coming I say!

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    1. Thanks for the comment John, I certainly do my best to stay civil and unbiased!

      I do agree with you, that many of our perceived freedoms in the West are less than they actually appear. I'm not undermining the stern repression that goes on in North Korea, and I certainly wouldn't enjoy a life there - although I think it's fair to note that while their limitations are delivered with the cane, the cultural limitations imposed in our own countries tend to be disguised and somewhat sugar-coated.

      Anyway, thank you for reading, subscribing and sharing your thoughts.

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  12. This calls the entire "they are the enemy" bullshite we have been fed for over 50 years. Suddenly, Kind Kim seems less a threat than the pearl clutching talking heads claim..

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    1. It does seem to throw a different light on things, doesn't it? Maybe the West is just getting the negotiations all wrong... should be heading over to Pyongyang with a peace pipe instead.

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  13. This is amazing. Probably the best story I have read about visiting N. Korea.

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    1. Thanks very much, Elvis - that means a lot.

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  14. Wow. Amazing.

    Did it seem like they have the smoking culture at all when you were smoking joints?

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    1. Good question. Not so much, that I saw - it appeared to be such a normal thing, so understated, that it seemed more like the way we might chew gum in the West. Something people do without a fuss, without ceremony.

      Thanks for the comment.

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  15. Wow, most good articles on North Korea are rather mind-blowing, but this one has to be the most jaw-dropping, straight-up shocking one I have yet to put my eyes one.
    Congrats on your once in a lifetime trip and thank you for sharing all this with the world. Wonderfully written article on what has to be one of the least covered topics ever! Original does not even cut it!

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    1. Really high praise indeed! Thanks a lot for reading, and I'm glad you found it so interesting.

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  16. There might be a North Korean cannabis-smoking culture, but as an easy to grow high protein food source, cannabis is hard to beat, hence its popularity there. Also, North Korea grows hemp for industry.

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    1. Absolutely. I don't doubt that they put the plant to good use, stripping it for hemp and oils and everything else they can get. It's supposed to grow very easily on the Korean peninsula, so you can see the appeal.

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  17. Replies
    1. Yep, big fat Korean churros. Who would have thought it?

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  19. thank you for the rare insightful look into a country that we have been so conditioned to irrationally despise. it's truly refreshing to hear such an entertaining account without the standard condescending fanfare that is so typical of anything on north korea.

    so i must know, how dank was it? top shelf, chronic, or comparable to shwag?

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    1. You're very welcome! While there's certainly a lot of negative points one could raise about North Korea, I feel other people do a good enough job of that already. I'd rather use my experiences to show people things they hadn't considered before.

      Despite all the crazy politics, it's a real country full of real people with their own rich culture... and it's already plenty weird enough, without resorting to the usual unfounded rumours that have a habit of flooding the Internet.

      As for the weed, we're talking about real, low-grade shwag here... although I see you've already checked out my other post, which talks about it in more detail.

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  20. How potent is the weed there? I imagine they (North Koreans) do not have enhanced seeds and hydroponics like in the west, the fact that its cheap gives the impression that it is not that good. I lived in Zambia for three years, the weed was terrible but incredibly cheap, I just have to ask, how good is the weed

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    1. I've never been to Zambia, but I'm going to guess it's about the same standard - terrible. It could easily have been picked from a roadside and dried overnight.

      Delete