CannaWorld: Cannabis in the Koreas

Story by Michael Hagar

South Korea has developed into a highly urbanized nation while North Korea remains tied to the strict rule of the Kim Dynasty. When we consider both countries’ cannabis policies, learning which is the more progressive may surprise you.

Officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), South Korea got off to a rough start in its early days, but is now known for its highly advanced and urbanized infrastructure. ROK is incredibly self-sufficient as a nation, with a strong economy, a high standard of living, the fastest internet connection speeds in the world and much more. The nation’s modern government is listed as a “presidential republic” by the CIA World Fact Book and has also been referred to as a social democracy.

Despite its incredible success as a nation and an impressive array of positive global rankings, South Korea’s progression falls short in a couple of ways. In order to stay ahead of the curve, South Korean citizens live incredibly stressful lives. Depression and suicide are all too common among their youth, with “uncertainty in life” and “school stress” being cited as the two main contributors. While cannabis has been shown to help curb symptoms of mental illness, its use as a medicine and recreational substance remain unaccepted.

Marijuana in the ROK is illegal and socially frowned upon. Personal possession, sale, transportation and cultivation are all prosecutable offenses that can yield jail time and legal fees. ROK police have been reported to randomly stop people going about their day to perform hair follicle tests. Whether a person just smoked a joint in Seoul with a friend or ingested cannabis a year previous, a hair follicle test will find it. To be clear, a tourist visiting South Korea does not have to be caught in the act or have even have consumed cannabis in Korea; just having THC found in his system can lead to arrest, deportation or even imprisonment. The same goes for South Korean citizens.

The country takes its drug policies very seriously and is rather indiscriminate in finding potential violations. Laborers, teachers, and celebrities are all equally at risk of being ensnared by the country’s drug policy. Any regular cannabis users who plan to visit South Korea anytime soon might want to consider this information. As futuristic as its cities might be, South Korea’s national cannabis policy could definitely use an upgrade.

Just slightly north past the famous Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)is North Korea. Officially titled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea is arguably one of the most fascinating countries in the world. A global affairs and foreign policy confidante described the situation on the ground this way, “North Korea is what would happen if a cult took over a country. It’s as if Jim Jones had a nation of followers but, instead of drinking the Kool-Aid, they seized the means of production.” Despite being so conservative, militaristic, and isolationist that it has earned the nickname “The Hermit Kingdom,” the DPRK’s policy on marijuana actually makes a lot more sense than that of its southern neighbor.

Very little information gets in and out of North Korea. As far as we know, either marijuana is considered to be a non-malicious drug or the supposed laws are rarely enforced. The subject has even grabbed the attention of a number of news media outlets including Vice, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post. The plant grows naturally in the wild, is socially acceptable to use and is referred to as ip tambae or yoksam by local inhabitants, which translates to “leaf tobacco.”

The collective wisdom from everything we’ve learned seems to boil down to these few main points: North Korean cannabis is not particularly potent, and remains a very popular alternative to tobacco, due to its lower cost and medicinal benefits. Whether you’re a tourist just passing through, or a DPRK national, cannabis is readily obtainable and using it carries no stigma. There have also been reports of North Korea growing a significant amount of industrial hemp even when compared to more industrialized nations. For these reasons and more, some people consider North Korea’s cannabis policy arguably more progressive than that of both South Korea and the United States.

Although not officially reported,it is rumored that some North Korean soldiers grew fond of cannabis while stationed around the DMZ. There are accounts of soldiers looking forward to wood-chopping duties because they’d get a chance to sneak off and roll a joint and even occasionally “hotbox” a tent. Keeping such a plant unregulated as an acceptable social crutch makes sense from a certain political perspective. Cannabis use typically reduces stress and aggression in its users and can be quite enjoyable, so instead of taking a page from the Nixon playbook and rounding up cannabis smokers, North Korea may view marijuana consumption as a minor means of pacification. Short of having a chat with Kim Jung-Un, we may never know exactly what the nation’s policy on marijuana truly is.