Kim Jong-un needs his cigarettesWhenever I visit Pyongyang, North Korean tour guides secretly ask me to give them one or two cartons of cigarettes. I thought that this was a sign of friendliness, so at first, I tried to buy North Korean cigarettes, such as Red Star or Moran Peak brands. But they would whisper in my ear, “How can I smoke that kind of cigarette? Could you please buy me Marlboro Red?”
They are pleased to receive Marlboro cigarettes by Philip Morris. I would teasingly ask, “You follow the direction of the ‘Dear Leader’ 100 percent, but why don’t you quit smoking? Isn’t your loyalty for the party compromised?” I was referring to the anti-smoking campaign created by Kim Jong-il in 2001. Then the tour guide would say without exception, “Well, I can follow orders for all other things, but I can’t give up cigarettes.”
In fact, Kim Jong-il himself started smoking again not long after he founded the program, so Workers’ Party executives are not to be blamed. Kim Jong-il was seen smoking even after he barely recovered from a stroke in the summer of 2008. While he had a family history of heart problems, he could not quit smoking completely. Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities presume that Kim Jong-il gave up on his health and kept on smoking and drinking despite medical advice to the contrary.
Kim Jong-il seemed to have preferred British tobacco brands Rothmans and Dunhill as well as American tobacco Marlboro. Kim Jong-un smokes France’s Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes. Kim Il Sung only smoked North Korean brands unlike his son and grandson, so he might have been displeased with his successors’ preference for foreign cigarettes.
According to 2009 research by the World Health Organization, a significant proportion of Korean adult males are smokers. And this is reflected in North Korean industry as well. More than 20 tobacco products are produced in the reclusive country.
A few days ago, the Korean Central News Agency released a photo of Kim Jong-un smoking a cigarette at a hospital. He was on a visit to Daeseongsan General Hospital, now being constructed in Pyongyang, and he was sitting on a bed. The man of absolute power can smoke anywhere he wishes, but smoking in a hospital is extremely inappropriate.
When the young leader who was educated in Europe saw a Korean sign for a pharmacy, he ordered English signs to be put up as well. However, his global-minded directive has been overshadowed by his cigarette use.
Maybe because of the negative image associated with smoking, the KCNA blurred out the cigarette in Kim Jong-un’s hand when he was photographed during a visit to a military base in August. However, his smoking was revealed as the smoke from the cigarette was not removed. Last month, Kim Jong-un made a provocation with a rocket launch, and a few days ago, he threatened “a nuclear experiment aiming at the United States.” In his second year in power, he is gambling with the fate of the system. The 29-year-old leader’s smoking habit may reflect his nervousness.
The author is a deputy political news editor
of the JoongAng Ilbo.