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North Korea, a smokers’ paradise, now urging people to quit’-paradise-now-urging-people-to-quit

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea, one of the last bastions of free, unhindered smoking, a country where just about every adult male can and does light up almost anywhere he pleases and where leader Kim Jong Un is hardly ever seen without a lit cigarette in his hand, is now officially trying to get its people to kick the habit.

It’s a battle Pyongyang has tried before and won’t easily win, especially since, beyond some stepped-up propaganda, it doesn’t appear to have a lot of funding. But this time around, the effort does have one big thing going for it: the increasingly vocal support of North Korean women, virtually none of whom smoke.

Ri Yong Ok, a 57-year-old pharmacist whose heavy-smoking husband nearly died of lung cancer, is leading the charge.

“I’ve been on TV, my whole family has been on TV, so everyone knows who I am,” Ri, flanked by no-smoking posters, told The Associated Press during an interview at the small anti-smoking center she manages in Pyongyang. The center, one of only 11 in all of North Korea, has something you almost never see in the North — a no-smoking sign placed prominently above its entrance.

“I’m optimistic that we can get people to stop,” she said. “Our goal is education.”

The potential health benefit to the nation could be tremendous.

Ri estimated about 54 percent of adult male North Koreans smoke — a higher figure than the 43.9 percent given by a World Health Organization report released at the end of 2014. Smoking is a social taboo for women and it’s illegal for anyone under the age of 17.

North Korea has toyed with the idea of pushing harder to get smokers to kick the habit before — Ri’s humble anti-smoking center has been around since 2007. But it has stepped up its effort to at least provide more education of smoking’s health risks since an anti-smoking decree was made by Kim in April.

The start of the new drive prompted speculation in the foreign media that Kim himself had quit, since cigarettes were conspicuously missing from his hands in photos carried by the state media of his “on-the-spot guidance” visits around the country from around that time.

The buzz didn’t last long. He was pictured smoking on a visit to a children’s camp in June.

North Korea joined the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005 and dutifully holds events on World No Tobacco Day every year. The infomercial on Ri and her family was broadcast by state-run TV on that day this year and a big anti-smoking poster for no smoking day hangs in her offices.

According to recent government reports, the country has reduced the amount of land devoted to growing tobacco. In May, state media quoted a Health Ministry official saying the ratio of male smokers in 2013 was down 8 percent when compared with 2009 and “the number of nonsmokers is remarkably increasing with each passing day.”

“I would guess about 300 people visit smoking cessations centers a day, nationwide,” in a country with a population of about 24 million, Ri told AP.

Cigarettes are a big business in North Korea.

Unlike many other consumer products, the array of domestically produced brands that are available to the public is amazing — from the status-symbol 727s (which take their name from the anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War) to brands like Pyol (Star), Craven and Tazo (which means ostrich and features the bird on every pack).

Menthol cigarettes are essentially non-existent but, because of the heavy competition among makers, gimmicks abound — one kind of Pyongyang-brand cigarette has filters tipped with smiley faces. Another brand is now putting flavored balls in its filters that when popped give the smoke a vaguely fruity taste.

Prices range from around $5 for the 727s and $7 or so for the popular Japanese Seven Star brand — despite international sanctions on luxury good exports, it’s easy to obtain imported cigarettes in Pyongyang — while Ostrich and other typical domestic smokes go for $1 or less a pack.

Some smokers roll their own blends, a practice that is more common in the countryside. Though the possibility can’t be ruled out, the sight of people puffing away on paper-rolled, odd-smelling mixtures of tobacco and whatever else they can stuff in with it may contribute to persistent but unsubstantiated reports by visitors and foreign media outlets of widespread marijuana use.

Health warnings are now required on cigarette packs, but remain inconspicuously placed in small lettering on the side of most and only state that smoking can be harmful to the health. A similar warning is posted in the smoking area at Pyongyang’s new international airport, though most smokers probably don’t see it — they just go outside.

Even so, the media campaign and pressure from wives, daughters, mothers and girlfriends does appear to be paying off, at least a little.

Yun Jin, a 27-year-old IT worker, said he made the decision to kick the habit after he saw Ri on television.

“I started smoking when I was a university student and smoke about 10 cigarettes a day,” he said before a consultation at Ri’s cessation center. “My mother wants me to quit, but it’s my decision.”

Consultations at the centers are free, in keeping with North Korea’s policy of providing free health care to its citizens. Medicines intended to help them quit are not covered, however.

Ri, being a pharmacist, has developed one such medicine. Brightly colored boxes of it — a 10-day supply of 21 lozenges goes for $10 a pop — cover one of the walls of her center. She boasts that, being entirely made of traditional Korean mountain herbs and medicinal plants, “it’s the best in the world.”

“There are many anti-smoking medicines around the world, but they contain nicotine, so ours is better for quitting,” she said. “But in the end, the most important thing is to really make the decision to quit.”

North Korea’s anti-tobacco drive up in smoke as Kim keeps puffing

North Korea’s anti-smoking campaign has failed to persuade young leader Kim Jong-un to quit the habit. Photo: Reuters

North Korea’s anti-smoking campaign has failed to persuade young leader Kim Jong-un to quit the habit. Photo: Reuters

A North Korean anti-smoking campaign has apparently failed to persuade young leader Kim Jong-un to quit, despite his late father’s warning that “a cigarette is like a gun aiming at your heart”.

During a public campaign to lower the country’s high rate of smoking, Kim was seen without a cigarette for more than 80 days, sparking speculation that he may have kicked the habit.

But a photo in the North’s top newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, last week of Kim smiling and holding a burning cigarette while visiting a children’s camp in Pyongyang seems to have dampened such expectations. There have been plenty of photos of Kim lighting up in the past.

He smoked when he inspected a ballistic missile plant, visited construction sites, toured a hospital and attended various sports competitions and art performances.

Kim Jong-un’s launches kimchi campaign as he vows to boost production of ‘the best food in the world’

He puffed away on an underground train and even in front of his pregnant wife.

The North’s state media have been hailing Pyongyang’s “hectic” anti-smoking campaign, which has been staged nationwide over the past month. Korean Central TV recently aired a documentary series focusing on health risks from smoking, with one female interviewee saying: “People who smoke first thing in the morning are disgusting and harmful to others”.

Kim’s father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung were also heavy smokers. Both died of heart attacks.

“A cigarette is like a gun aimed at your heart,” Kim Jong-Il said in early 2000, when he appeared to have kicked the habit. But he lapsed in 2008 and died three years later.

Kim Jong Un-acceptable? North Korean leader seen flouting anti-smoking push


North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un has been seen smoking – during a national anti-smoking campaign.

In a photo released by the state news agency on June 4, the grinning leader can be seen standing outside a children’s center, lit cigarette in hand, flanked by officials scribbling into notepads.

Last month, the agency reported a national anti-smoking drive, announcing that state-sanctioned cigarette makers would be required to put health warning notices on packaging.

Campaign ads warning of the dangers of smoking had encouraged many citizens to quit, state media said.

Large numbers of North Koreans are known to smoke, and cigarettes cost only 27 cents a pack.

Since coming to power three years ago after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, Kim has regularly been seen smoking in official pictures – even at the site of a rocket launch.

According to the former sushi chef of Kim’s late father Kim Jong-il, the now-supreme leader has been fond of smoking since his youth.

Japanese national Kenji Fujimoto recalled in a book that young Kim would sometimes ask him for one of his luxury Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes – but kept the habit a secret from his father.

Kim Jong il, was also believed to be a heavy smoker, and was seen puffing on a cigarette on state media in 2009, some two years before his death of a heart attack. However, he was said to have given up cigarettes – and his beloved French cognac – on doctor’s orders back in 2000.

In 2014, Kim Jong-un reportedly banned his aides and officials from smoking foreign cigarettes, insisting that local ones were good enough. It is not known which brand he smokes.

More power

North Korea announced Thursday it will convene a rare parliamentary session late this month, when it may confer a new title on leader Kim Jong-Un as he further tightens his grip on power.

“The fourth session of the 13th SPA (Supreme People’s Assembly) will be convened in Pyongyang on June 29”, the official KCNA news agency said.

As usual, it gave no other details, including on the session’s agenda.

The Supreme People’s Assembly meets only once or twice a year, mostly for day-long sessions to rubber-stamp budgets or other decisions made by the ruling communist party.

At a congress of the Workers Party of Korea last month, the first event of its kind for more than 35 years, Kim was elected as party chairman.

The parliamentary session may also grant Kim a new state title to replace his current one as “first chairman” of the powerful National Defence Commission (NDC).

He was stuck with the awkward title as North Korea had named Kim’s predecessor and father, the late Kim Jong-Il, as permanent chairman of the NDC.

“At the parliamentary session, the North may come up with a new state organ, for example, a supreme national council, and make Kim its head,” professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told AFP.

At the party congress in May, Kim stressed he would push through with his signature policy of Byungjin — building up the North’s nuclear arsenal and developing the economy simultaneously.

He then unveiled a five-year economic plan, with a particular focus on increasing energy output.

The upcoming parliamentary session is expected to approve government policies and legal changes aimed at carrying out those policies and approve personnel changes within government agencies.

Sanctions may squeeze North Korea’s counterfeit cigarette trade

Stepped-up U.N. sanctions against North Korea could put a crimp on an important source of foreign currency for the secretive communist state: illicit cigarettes.

Port officials in Manila and Malta have at least twice in the past three years seized shipments of North Korean cigarettes that camouflaged millions of high-quality counterfeit Marlboros with packaging and markings like those prepared for legal sale in Iraq.

Under a U.N. resolution adopted on March 2 in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear and rocket tests, member states are required to inspect all cargo headed to and from the country to check for contraband goods. Additionally, the U.S. on June 1 barred third-country banks from using accounts in the U.S. to process transactions for North Korean counterparts.

Sulafar Safir, commercial attache at the Iraqi embassy in Seoul, speculated that the seized shipments may have carried Iraqi markings to facilitate sale in neighboring states, such as Syria and Turkey.

The Malta shipment was addressed to a Libyan business identified as Al Shama Al Modea, whose name also surfaced in a 2014 Malta case involving counterfeit Winston cigarettes. Paperwork for the Manila shipment listed two Philippine addresses, Gervic Trading and Transocean Export Sales.

The Philippines is one of Asia’s top markets for counterfeit cigarettes, accounting for an estimated 709 million of the 1 billion counterfeit cigarettes consumed across 16 regional markets in 2014, according to a study released in January by the International Tax and Investment Center and Oxford Economics. The study was underwritten by Marlboro owner Philip Morris International; Japan Tobacco owns rights to the Winston brand outside the U.S.

A tobacco investigator familiar with both seizures said the Manila shipment was to be sent on to the United Arab Emirates port of Jebel Ali for transshipment by a Syrian businessman to his homeland.

While the political affiliations of the businessman are unclear, insurgent and terrorist groups in Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have turned to cigarette smuggling to generate revenue.

In a report last year, the Center for Analysis of Terrorism in Paris counted 15 terror groups who had turned to counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes for financing, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey. Volumes crossing over the border with Syria have doubled since that country’s civil war began in 2011, the report said.

“Cigarettes smuggled into Turkey have been used to fund terrorism,” said Louise Shelley, who directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University.

Khaled Abou al-Abbass, known as Mokhtar Belmokhtar and a leader of al-Qaida’s affiliate in northwest Africa, is also known to have relied on cigarette trafficking for funds. Michael Ellis, assistant director at Interpol’s counterfeiting and illicit goods trafficking unit, said, “The links between al-Qaida and cigarette smuggling led to [Belmokhtar’s] nickname of ‘Mr. Marlboro.'”

GOOD AS CASH North Korea emerged as a major producer of counterfeit cigarettes after China joined the World Trade Organization in late 2001 and began cracking down on such activity within its borders, according to a 2014 report by Sheena Greitens, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. Production simply shifted over the Korean border. Between 2002 and 2005, counterfeit Marlboros from North Korea were identified 1,300 times within the U.S., according to a State Department report issued in December.

Although North Korea last year banned the sale of foreign cigarettes at home, counterfeiting of foreign brands continues, according to interviews Greitens conducted with defectors.

“Cigarettes are an especially lucrative item to counterfeit compared to other consumer goods,” she said. “They are also comparatively less risky from an enforcement standpoint than a product like narcotics.”

“How [does North Korea] get hard currency to pay for necessary imports?” asked Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer on international relations at Troy University in Seoul. “With the sanctions regime and the inefficiencies and structural problems in the economy, those problems are not going away any time soon, so pressures to resort to illicit activities remain.”

Hard data on this is naturally difficult to come by. “We don’t know the volumes,” said the investigator involved in the recent seizures. “I think they go up and down, but we believe [the production] to be ongoing and increasing. We know from primary sources that what restricts their volumes is lack of machinery and lack of spare parts. They have a backlog of counterfeit orders. It is just a matter of getting the machinery to produce them.”

The South’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency has reported that the North imported $180,000 worth of Swiss tobacco manufacturing machinery in the first half of 2014, though the North also produces its own brands for local consumption. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is a keen smoker, often photographed with a lit cigarette in hand. Legitimate cigarettes are one of the few manufactured items the country exports, mostly to or via China. Along the border, North Korean cigarettes are sometimes used in lieu of currency in small-scale transactions.

The seizures in Manila and Malta followed tipoffs to port authorities from the U.K. Customs and Excise agency and Interpol. The seized cargoes were inspected by U.S.

Homeland Security agents. In both cases, shipping containers with cartons of legitimate North Korean cigarettes concealed packs of pirated Marlboros. The Manila shipment, seized in October 2013, included 8.79 million counterfeit Marlboros in 439,000 packs; the shipment in Malta in June 2014 held 8.16 million sticks in 413,000 packs. A source put the street value of the two shipments at $4.2 million to $8.4 million. The counterfeits were hidden behind stacks of legitimate North Korean cigarettes.

According to shipping documents, the sender for both shipments was Sun Moon Star Trading, based in Dalian, a port in northeast China close to North Korea. But there is no sign of such a company at the address listed on the forms, and people working in the building said they had never heard of Sun Moon Star. Nor are there any signs of Gervic Trading or Transocean Export at their given Manila addresses.

The tobacco investigator said his informant told him the cigarettes came to Dalian from the North Korean port of Nampo. After leaving Dalian, the Manila shipment passed through Kaohsiung, Taiwan, according to shipping records; the Malta container transited through Busan, South Korea.

Philip Morris International is cagey about how it is handling these cases. “We don’t comment on action taken or intended with respect to specific cases,” a spokesman said.
The question now is whether U.N. member states will rigorously implement the inspections which would root out more shipments of counterfeits.

“I think they will make life more difficult for these kinds of operations, and at the moment it is high-energy and high-implementation, but the places most likely to implement cargo checks consistently, over the long term, are places that are least likely to be buyers,” said Christopher Green, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “I can imagine that a majority of places in Africa and the Middle East will lose the institutional will or interest in conducting these checks over the long term.”

Said Troy’s Pinkston: “It is certainly going to influence or affect North Korean smuggling, but it is all about enforcement and compliance. Rigorous inspections are costly and a lot of places do not have these capacities, so who is going to pay for this?”

Nikkei staff writers Daisuke Harashima in Dalian and Cliff Venzon in Manila contributed to this report.