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Cannabis in North Korea

A brief story on cannabis in North Korea covering its history, modern day use and regulations. Apparently, not all is rotten in the state of North Korea.


North Korea, or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea covers the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. It was formed in 1948 in the post-World War Two period, known as the Cold War. The country has since been ruled by the Kim Dynasty with the most recent and current ruler, or better say supreme leader, being Kim Jong-Un, a very well known internet celebrity. DPRK officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state however the western critics regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship. When it comes to development and living conditions, North Korea is very much behind South Korea, as they suffer trading sanctions due to the unchanging nature of their foreign and local policy.
When it comes to living in North Korea the western world knows almost next to nothing. The country is closed off, with their laws and policies being undisclosed, and even though people have been allowed to visit the country their testimonies can’t be taken as 100% true. All that visit North Korea do so as a part of organized tourist trips, and what they see on those trips is heavily censored to leave the desired effect. Considering that complete manipulation is never possible and the complete lack of any other significant pieces of information, those testimonies is what we are basing our story on.


The cannabis plant has long been present in and around the Korean Peninsula, with supporting evidence including trading records between China, Korea and Japan. Archaeological evidence from North Korea in the modern era is sparse, due to the closed of nature of its government and the lack of resources they possess for such research. When comparing findings in China and Japan it is believed hemp was introduced as early as 5 000 BC.

There are several archaeological findings in the Korean Peninsula that indicate cannabis was used as a fabric material alongside silkworms. As harvest was essential to such an early agricultural civilisation it is only common that there have existed deities associated with it. Magu is a Korean cannabis goddess taken from the Chinese Ma, meaning cannabis and gu meaning girl. The cannabis plant was highly regarded due to the fact that high-quality paper was made out of it and later on such paper held high value in the Buddhist culture.


Back in the 1960’s North Korea was under the rule of Kim Il-Sung while the country was shaken by a strong economy crisis. It was then that the foundation for the country’s hemp industry was set. As the mountainous north of the country was most severely struck by the crisis, in order to achieve local self-sufficiency, various rules to produce cold tolerant crops were imposed. The crops set for growing included hemp, flax and sesame, with every county having to farm at least 300 hectares of the given crops. Also, industrialization was beginning to take place as oil factories were built in every farming county. While possibly well meant, the given measures were executed poorly and have with the combination of other political and natural factors led to a nation-wide famine in the 90’s.

What is known for a fact is that today North Korea cultivates great amounts of hemp and has a developing industry based on hemp products. The northern parts of the country, which border with China, are filled with hemp farms and are a backbone of their country’s industry.

While last official data puts North Korea in the third place when it comes to hemp production in the world, just after Spain and China, there have been unofficial reports of the industry growth. If the reports are to be trusted North Korea is plowing its way to being the world’s largest hemp producer.

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There have also been recent reports of the North Korean government forcibly seizing hemp sacks from farmers in the north, exacting a hefty levy of three hemp sacks per person. The sacks were to be used for military purposes. Such actions have once more provided an insight into the totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime and put doubts in the scale and quality of their hemp industry.

On the other hand, hemp has played the role of a mediator between North and South Korea. South Korea’s Andong Hemp Textile Company and North Korea’s Saebyol General Trading Company formed a joint venture to become Pyongyang Andong Hemp Textiles, the first north-south joint business venture to open in the North Korean capital since the Korean War and the division of North and South Korea. It is worth noting that the company suffered great losses due to trading sanctions imposed to North Korea.


While hemp production is something increasingly acceptable in the western world, other cannabis strains that yield a more THC-rich resin are usually frowned upon by people and law.
It is precisely why North Korea’s apparent stance on marijuana may surprise you. According to multiple reports from defectors, visitors and researchers, North Korea either has no law against the sale and consumption of marijuana, or it doesn’t enforce it. It is worth noting that as a member of the United Nations North Korea should have laws banning the use of such substances.

Some reports from those lucky enough to visit the great Democratic People’s Republic of Korea say that buying cannabis is very easy and cheap. It has also been said that the use of cannabis is widely acceptable and that it is perfectly fine to smoke joints both indoors and outdoors. Now, while the use of cannabis by some tourists does not guarantee its legality, it does provide an interesting insight.

It it is said that the cannabis plant is so widely spread in North Korea that it grows wild like a weed. But it is worth noting that such cannabis strains are most likely hemp which is known to grow there in abundance, especially considering that some of those who have tried the North Korean weed claim it to be of little to no effect. It is all consistent with the low, usually less than 1%, THC levels found in hemp.

On the other hand, some claim that other than being grown on farms and spread wildly, cannabis is also grown in gardens. The variety of cannabis known as “yoksam” is consumed by the North Koreans as a replacement for the more expensive tobacco, with the working class being most associated with it. It is said “yoksam” is used as a way to relax after a working day helping with muscle pain and similar ailments. Such effects deviate from what hemp is known to do and the story suggests that other strains of cannabis are also in use.

In the end, why should we be surprised that the North Koreans are using cannabis? The stigma over cannabis existent in the western society is a cultural one, albeit reinforced by law. One thing is clear, it is financial interests and government regimes that shape laws and, in some cases, even people’s opinions, as it is quite apparent in the story of cannabis. As much as the North Korean people have been manipulated by the totalitarian regime in the last 70 years, is it possible, that when it comes to cannabis, the western world has suffered the same blinding fate it so often mocks?

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North Korea is a bad trip if you’re looking to get high

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea has been getting some pretty high praise lately from the stoner world.

Marijuana news outlets including High Times, Merry Jane and Green Rush — along with British tabloids, which always love a good yarn — are hailing the North as a pothead paradise and maybe even the next Amsterdam of pot tourism. They’ve reported North Korean marijuana to be legal, abundant and mind-blowingly cheap, sold openly to Chinese and Russian tourists at a major market on the North’s border for about $3 a pound.

But seriously, North Korea? Baked?

The claim that marijuana is legal in North Korea is not true: The penal code lists it as a controlled substance in the same category as cocaine and heroin. And the person who would likely help any American charged with a crime in North Korea emphatically rejects the idea that the ban is not enforced.

“There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here,” said Torkel Stiernlof, the Swedish ambassador. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the North, so Sweden’s embassy acts as a middleman when U.S. citizens run afoul of North Korean laws.

“One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offense to smoke it,” Stiernlof said. He said that if a foreigner caught violating drug laws in North Korea happened to be an American citizen, he or she could “expect no leniency whatsoever.”

Americans have been sentenced to years in North Korean prisons for such seemingly minor offenses as stealing a political banner and leaving a Bible in a public place.

Even so, the claim that North Korea is a haven for marijuana smokers has cycled through the internet in various incarnations with great success over the past few years.

Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-government-funded news service, lit up the latest round of stoner glee last month with a story that Chinese and Russian tourists are stocking up on North Korean pot by the kilo in Rason, a special economic zone on the country’s northernmost frontier that has a large, bazaar-style marketplace. The same market was the setting for one of the earliest blogs on the topic, a first-person account of getting high in the North from 2013.

Categorically confirming or denying such claims is difficult because foreigners’ access to the market is restricted. But where there’s smoke, there usually is at least a little fire.

Troy Collings, a frequent traveler to North Korea and managing director of Young Pioneer Tours, offered a more mundane explanation: It’s just hemp.

Ditchweed. Nebraska no-high.

“I’ve seen and even purchased hemp, but it doesn’t contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco,” he told the AP in an email. “It grows wild in the mountainous regions of the North and people pick it, dry it and sell it in the markets, but it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”

Hemp is grown in North Korea with official sanction. It’s used to make consumer goods including towels, cooking oil and noodles, as well as and military uniforms and belts. It’s also used as rabbit fodder. The rabbits are grown for food.

But industrial hemp is generally so low in THC, the active ingredient found in its cannabinoid cousins, sativa and indica, that it’s useless for medicinal or recreational purposes. It’s even cultivated in a different manner, focusing on male plants that do not produce buds. It’s the buds of female plants that recreational users are most after.

The Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory actively markets hemp products as “environmentally friendly” and “perfect for the 21st century.” An official at the plant told The Associated Press that while several varieties of hemp grow in North Korea, all are very low in THC.

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“No one smokes this in our country,” she said, requesting she not be named because of the sensitive nature of talking to the American media. “It’s only used for making things.”

North Korea grows something else that might be confused with marijuana: a mix of brown and greenish leafy tobacco that is used in pipes and sold openly in Pyongyang and elsewhere.

Smoking a lot of that could certainly give someone a buzz — and probably a bad headache. But from the nicotine.

Nevertheless, Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, another agency that specializes in bringing foreign tourists to the North, said the idea marijuana is legal in North Korea has become so widespread that it’s not uncommon for prospective tourists to ask what to expect.

“We apologize, but have to inform those enquiring about this that weed is not legal. They are not going to be able to get any there,” he said.

“The idea that the country is full of stoners blissfully getting high in a legal-weed paradise is not an accurate one,” he added. “Not having seen or done something doesn’t mean it is never seen or done, of course. But I have never seen this.”


Genetics: North Korean traditional cultivar
Origin: Kangwon province
Sourced: The Landrace Team via genebank
Latitude: 38°N
Country of origin: North Korea PRK (Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of)
Aromas: fruity, woody, creamy, lime
Veg: 8-10 weeks
Flowering: 50-65 days
Characteristics: short veg and flowering times for a sativa.
Structure: sativa

This traditional cultivar from North Korea in the Kangwon province and acquired in 1986 through a genebank is a very special genetic line due to its vigour and precocity to grow and mature. The peculiarity of these plants is that they are fast in growing and resistant and can reach great heights in a short period of time in optimal conditions.

It grows in a conical shape and some other plants in a predominantly columnar shape They dispaly leaves with 3, 5, 7 and 9 leaflets with vigorous long petioles, the leaflets are sharp and with a thin shape like a clasical sativa.

The have wide internodal spaces of between 5 and 10 cm and the height can vary between 120 cm to 250 cm where it acquires a beautiful and very symmetrical structure from its branches to the central stem.

The stems are of good quality for hemp cultivar. Some plants when rubbed give off a fruity and citrusy aroma. The very interesting peculiarity about these plants is the really short vegetative stage, really short for this sativa-bearing plant, ranging from 8 weeks to 10 weeks.

During this time it dedicates itself to structuring a beautiful conical shape with abundant foliage. At the beginning of its flowering stage it stops growth notably, the structure already formed by several branches begin to be populated with large aerated calyxes.

The flowering period takes between 50 to 65 days, an accelerated and record time for this plants with sativa stricture. The aromas are fruity, citric and floral. The resin is of medium quantity and some bring few amounts of visible resin, it must be observed with a magnifying glass or a 60x to 100x loupe to be able to know the optimum point for the harvest.

The flavor is woody, very soft on the palate with very subtle fruity touches, delivering a meditative and calming effect, neither too high nor too low. The effect is fast to come on and it leaves no traces of heaviness.