On 29th September I wrote a report about smoking weed in North Korea. The piece described a visit to the local market in Rason, a remote port city on the north coast of the DPRK. For me, the real narrative of the story was the experience of visiting the market itself. Having been on a package tour of North Korea prior to this, it felt like a rare treat to see something so down to earth, a behind-the-scenes look at normal life in the DPRK.
My report was read, shared, shared and shared again, reaching as many as 100,000 views within the first few days. This brought with it a lot of feedback, and most of it positive: for what many described as an original and unique take on tourism in North Korea. However, subsequent features in the press also brought the attention of numerous experts – and just recently I’ve been hearing criticisms and misgivings from those who find this account difficult to accept.
The main issue seems to be that many people – and people with extensive knowledge of the country, at that – are confident that cannabis is not actually legal in North Korea. Working backwards from this understanding, some have suggested that the substance my tour group took to be cannabis was actually, in fact, an unripe rolling (or chewing) tobacco; and my report devalued by an error of judgement.
The accuracy of reporting on this blog is something I take very seriously, which is why I’m offering this evaluation of my first account. It’s also important to note that I have no vested interest in whether or not this really was cannabis; I feature no ads on my site, I make no money from writing these reports, and so I’m not looking to make a quick buck from posting sensational articles. My interest lies purely in the pursuit of truth.
The Case For Cannabis
I’m happy to bow down to superior knowledge, and accept what the experts are telling me:
Cannabis is not legal in North Korea.
I’ve heard it from so many sources now, that it looks pretty conclusive. While I regret the mistake of posting such a statement, it came as a logical conclusion to my own experiences and was supported by much of the literature available online.
I’m not the first person to write about cannabis usage in the DPRK – and nor will I be the last. There are plenty of reports out there dealing with the growth and usage of marijuana in North Korea, from VICE Magazine through to academic discussion of defector accounts over on NKNews.
In any other country, any other context, observation alone would serve to form a conclusive argument; if it looks, feels, smells and tastes like cannabis – plus it gets you high – then it probably is cannabis. The eight members of our tour group were in unanimous agreement that the substance had the weed’s unmistakable effect.
Adding a little further credence to the hypothesis, just a few weeks after the incident I found a cluster of cannabis plants growing wild in a field in northeast China. It wasn’t much of a stretch to suppose that the plant also grows freely in nearby North Korea; or that people harvest and smoke it in more rural parts of the country.
I always like to seek the opinion of an expert though.
As it so happens, another member of my tour group was the proprietor of a ‘head shop’ in the UK. Lazy Frog is based in Swindon, and stocks an extensive range of ‘smokeware’ – this made James, then store manager, as close to being a cannabis expert as the law would allow.
We’d swapped emails and I recently got in touch with James out of the blue, asking if he could just describe the scene in his own words. He was happy to help.
“When we were in the market in Rason city, amongst farmers’ and fishers’ produce was a tobacco stall selling huge amounts of tobacco and weed for really cheap. The weed was just dried and mashed up marijuana plants, and I certainly couldn’t begin to guess its genetics from the state it was in.”
I asked James whether it felt like weed too, as opposed to the buzz of smoking tobacco. He replied:
“Well it had a very familiar smell, and although nothing like smoking skunk here in the UK, definitely had an effect on the group’s mood – and appetite. Even the kimchi that I just couldn’t face before, suddenly became really, really tasty.” 
The Case Against Cannabis
Nobody has yet contacted me to offer a correction or criticism of my report, but in the wake of recent publicity surrounding my post several notable experts have voiced their disapproval. These arguments generally boil down to a simple series of assertions, and their logical conclusion:
1. Cannabis usage is illegal in North Korea, although public knowledge regarding the plant is low.
2. The substance pictured in my report could also be un-dried tobacco, which is greenish in colour, and smoked by many poorer people in North Korea.
3. This substance is often quite strong, a selling point in itself, and so could give the impression of being something other than tobacco.
Therefore: the substance we bought was not cannabis, but rather a green, un-dried tobacco.
One of my critics (Matthew Reichel, Executive Director of the East West Coalition and the Pyongyang Project) suggested that this incident had been the result of an error in translation; based on my use of the term “iptambe” in the original report. According to Matthew, this word is sometimes used to refer to cannabis in South Korea – but in the North, it invariably means hand rolled tobacco cigarettes.
However, this is a term I only came across during my later research. During my time in the DPRK, I never heard the substance named in Korean.
After reading his comments, I made contact with Matthew to see if he could help with an explanation. He confirmed: “it is possible to find marijuana in markets in the DPRK. Farmers tend to smoke it sometimes”; and, that it is generally referred to as “yaktambe” or “taemacho”. He went on to assert though that he had never seen cannabis on open display – but rather that it would tend to be kept underneath or behind market stalls, out of sight. Matthew was convinced that rather than cannabis, what we had found here was a substance known locally as kosari – “cheap, not fully dried leaf tobacco.”
I also got in touch with Simon Cockerell, manager of the tour group Koryo Tours, who had similarly damned my account.
“I don’t really see it,” he wrote in his reasonable reply, “smoking weed isn’t a common thing in North Korea, whereas smoking tobacco is almost totally omnipresent, it seems just that the simple analysis of what is more likely (Occam’s Razor basically) suggests that it is tobacco rather than anything else.”
I asked him whether it was possible that some vendors still (perhaps even unknowingly) sell poor quality cannabis on Rason market – even despite the legality issues; whether it was possible that our group had seen something that just didn’t fit conventional Western knowledge of North Korea.
He agreed it was possible.
“Being illegal is not necessarily a total barrier to people selling things, even in a market situation where there are monitors,” he said. However, the nature of Rason market made this problematic for him:
“Rason is a place quite a few people have detailed knowledge about and access too, this is probably the place where there is the most knowledge about trade,” he told me. “If this was somewhere else like in a market in Hamhung or somewhere deep in the interior then I would say this is more likely.”
“Again this is hardly conclusive though,” he admitted.
At the time, I was personally convinced that the substance in question was cannabis. Nobody told the group off for smoking it, and so the logical conclusion was that we weren’t breaking the law.
In the interest of objectivity however, I’m taking my own opinions out of this review. That leaves us with an expert on cannabis – who was present in the market that day, and was convinced that the substance in question was marijuana…
…against numerous experts on North Korea, who weren’t present, and assert that such a scenario is not impossible; just so unlikely that they don’t believe it happened. The answer I’m hearing, time and time again, is that maybe – just possibly – it could happen… but it didn’t happen to you.
I’m perfectly prepared to hypothesise that the absent critics are right, and that all eight witnesses were incorrect in their identification of the substance – even the one whose entire business revolved around its use. But what if I were to apply Occam’s Razor from my own perspective, using the evidence available?
Which perspective would you find more convincing?
If you haven’t already, now check out my original report on smoking weed in North Korea.
A Final Note on Accuracy
There’s a tagline at the top of this page that reads, “Exploring the bizarre, the macabre & other secret wonders of the world.”
Well, exploration is a process of learning.
I’ve written coming on for 100 reports now, from more than a dozen different countries and spanning three continents. I certainly don’t claim to be an ‘expert’ on each one of these destinations (though I’ve certainly learned a lot through the process of visiting and writing about them).
My first-hand impressions are exactly that, and these personal reflections will usually drive a report. I always try to go one step further though, and share what I consider to be important backstory with each location or event. There’s a vast amount of research involved in that, and I take a pride in my dedication to reporting the facts accurately. Once in a while though, it’s possible that I’ll make a mistake – or trust the wrong sources. In those instances, I want to be corrected.
I deeply regret having temporarily added to the mountain of misinformation out there about North Korea, when, in my last post I asserted the seemingly logical conclusion that “cannabis is legal in North Korea”… but I was also disappointed by the responses showed by experts and academics alike.
One critic publicly ridiculed my report in an extremely well-read AMA on Reddit. Another shared remarks in a related forum, branding me an “idiot” and dismissing my hard work as “BS.” Not one of my critics took the time to contact me, or even leave a comment on my report.
Such responses don’t strike me as an effective approach to dealing with (here unwitting) misinformation – as opposed to, say, contacting the author and highlighting a mistake, or suggesting an informed revision of the text. I had always assumed we were on the same side.
So if you’re an expert on something I’ve discussed and you think you know better, then please… do us both a favour by using the comments section. That’s what it’s there for.
 I, on the other hand, adore kimchi.
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