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Cannabis in North Korea – Laws, Use, and History

North Korea is largely closed off to the rest of the world and is regarded as an illiberal country. In the past, experts have claimed that cannabis is not viewed as a ‘hard drug’ in the eyes of the law, and can be smoked, owned and even sold freely. However, the truth is a little less clear-cut – and hard to uncover in the ‘hermit kingdom’.

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Cannabis laws in North Korea

Can you possess and use cannabis in Korea?

North Korea is often regarded as a conservative country, with harsh laws against many offences. Although hard drugs such as heroin are illegal there, some experts claim that cannabis is not. Reports have even gone as far as to say that it can be freely smoked and even sold, without prosecution.

For example, in 2013, Vice News reported that cannabis was widely smoked as ‘ip dambae’; a cheap alternative to tobacco.

However, it’s difficult to establish the truth of the situation, as few people visit the country. Torkel Stiernlof, a Swedish diplomat who lives there, states that cannabis is an illegal substance, and is classified as harmful as cocaine and heroin.

He told the Associated Press that: “There should be no doubt that drugs, including marijuana, are illegal here. One can’t buy it legally and it would be a criminal offence to smoke it.”

Generally speaking, the law in North Korea is strict, with the death penalty in place for serious crimes. According to Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide database, regular executions are carried out in secret; and some are for drugs-related offences. However, as the outside world isn’t granted access to specific legislation, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.

Can you sell cannabis in North Korea?

It’s ambiguous whether it’s legal to sell or supply cannabis in north Korea, and conflicting reports make it hard to get to the truth of the matter. For example, Radio Free Asia (which is funded by the US government) released a story in 2018, stating that North Koreans were selling cannabis to Chinese and Russian tourists – from the special economic zone of Rason.

It’s thought that this cannabis was actually hemp, which doesn’t contain enough THC to achieve a high. Troy Collings, the MD of Young Pioneer Tours, commented: “I’ve seen and even purchased hemp, it doesn’t contain any THC and is just sold as a cheap substitute for tobacco … it doesn’t get you high no matter how much you smoke.”

Can you grow cannabis in North Korea?

Without any official legislation to refer to, it’s difficult to say whether cultivation is legal in North Korea or not – though based on the limited evidence available, it’s probable that cannabis cultivation is a prosecutable offence.

However, cannabis grows in the wild in North Korea; particularly in the mountainous northern regions. There have also been reports of people cultivating cannabis in their gardens, though there is no official evidence to back this up.

Is CBD legal in North Korea?

Again, this is ambiguous. Although CBD contains low levels of THC (and therefore cannot provide a ‘high’), North Korea’s other drugs laws are strict, and may extend to the use or sale of CBD oil.

Can cannabis seeds be sent to North Korea?

Without official legislation, it’s safer to presume that the sale and purchase of cannabis seeds is illegal in North Korea. This is also the case for sending them into the country by post.

Medicinal cannabis in North Korea

Unlike South Korea, which has recently stated its intention to legalise cannabis for medicinal use, North Korea shows no signs of doing the same.

Industrial hemp in North Korea

North Korea has an active hemp industry, as companies such as the Pyongyang Hemp Processing Factory can testify. They make a range of environmentally friendly products from hemp. An official from the company informed the Associated Press that there are several varieties of hemp grown in the country; all of which contain very low levels of THC.

“No-one smokes this in our country,” she emphasised. “It’s only used for making things.”

According to a recent report, North Korea has one of the largest hemp cultivation areas in the world, with an estimated 27,500 hectares dedicated to growing the plant in 2004. Also in 2004, the country reportedly produced 12,800 metric tonnes of hemp, making it the globe’s third largest producer. Only China (38,000 metric tonnes) and Spain (15,000 metric tonnes) produced more.

Hemp is cultivated across North Korea, with key growing areas located in North Pyongan, South and North Hamgyong, and Ryanggang. These are all northern provinces, and all share a border with China.

In 2008, North Korea’s government forcibly seized hemp sacks from farmers in North Pyongan and limited each person to a maximum of three hemp sacks each, which sparked ill-feeling among the community. This illustrates how important hemp is to the rural communities of this country.

Good to know

If you are travelling to North Korea (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • The goddess Mago / Magu was traditionally worshipped in North Korea. She was usually associated with the hemp plant, taking her name from the Chinese word for cannabis – ‘ma’.
  • It’s believed that some North Koreans choose to smoke cannabis as an alternative to tobacco. Cannabis grows widely and is cheap, while cigarettes are expensive.
  • According to The Bohemian Blog (written by the British travel writer and photographer Darmon Richter) it’s easy to purchase cannabis in North Korea, and smoke it in public without prosecution. However, this is just one person’s experiences and should not be taken as evidence that the North Korean authorities permit this.

History of cannabis in North Korea

Cannabis grows wild in North Korea and has done for centuries. It’s believed that it was first cultivated by farmers in 6,000 BC, though evidence to support this is scarce. However, findings in nearby China and Japan date hemp use back to 5,500 – 4,000BC and 4,000 – 2,500BC respectively, so it seems probable that it was also being used in North Korea.

A piece of hemp thread strung through a needle was found in the north of the country in 1979. It’s thought to date back to 4,000 – 2,000BC, to the Chulmun / Jeulmun Period. The Ye-Maek people that lived on North Korea’s east coast were also believed to have cultivated hemp, and near Pyongyang, the Painted Basket Tomb revealed fragments of hemp textiles.

Judging by the evidence found by archaeologists, hemp use continued uninterrupted over the years. In 1998, experts discovered a 16 th century tomb in South Korea, which had a pair of hemp-bark sandals inside. It seems likely that both North and South Koreans never stopped using this plant, and continue to do so today.

Prior to World War II (and the creation of North and South Korea), the region had an active hemp trade with Japan. However, after the war, hemp was banned in Japan, and trading ceased accordingly.

The media portrays North Korea as being a ‘cannabis-smoker’s paradise, which goes against the country’s popular image. Here’s more information.