UPDATED at 5:00 P.M. EST on 2017-1-13
Chinese who visit North Korea on sightseeing or business trips are purchasing cannabis in large quantities in the Rason Special Economic Zone and selling it for a tidy profit back home, sources inside North Korea said.
Because cannabis cultivation is legal in North Korea, selling yeoksam, as it is called in the isolated country, has become an easy way to earn money, they said.
“People in Rason buy the large quantities of buds of yeoksam from residents and pay 30 yuan (U.S. $4.30) per kilogram (2.2 lbs.), and then sell them for 500 yuan (U.S. $72) per kilogram to Chinese people,” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
Rason is a warm-water port in the northeastern part of North Hamgyong province bordering China and Russia. Visitors must obtain a special visa to enter the area from officials assigned to the zone by central government authorities in the capital Pyongyang.
Cannabis, which is illegal to grow in many foreign countries because of its designation as a narcotic drug, is classified as an oilseed crop in North Korea. In China, possession, sale, and transport of cannabis for recreational or medicinal purposes is illegal and harshly punished. However, the cultivation of industrial hemp for use in clothing ropes or export is legal.
Although the plants are similar, hemp has been bred to contain very low levels of THC, the cannabinoid compound that produces a high in users in marijuana.
North Korea has been growing hemp legally since the early 1980s, the source said.
“[Former leader] Kim Il Sung extensively encouraged the cultivation of yeoksam to solve a cooking oil shortage in the early 1980s,” the source said.
Some people still grow it for cooking oil, but most yeoksam grows wild from seeds of previously cultivated plants, he said.
Because the plant is now so widely grown outdoors, most North Koreans do not realize it is categorized as an illicit drug in other countries, said a second source from North Hamgyong province.
“Rason’s custom officers do not doubt the danger of dried yeoksam, but they treat it as general wild greens and allow Chinese to take as much as they can without restrictions,” he told RFA.
The source added that the residents of Kyongwon and Puryong counties near Rason heard the news that Chinese visitors buy dried cannabis in large quantities at a high price, the source said.
But because many people do not know what cannabis is used for, they cut down entire plants and dry them to sell, he said.
North Koreans previously used cannibas as fodder for rabbits they kept, though now more people have come to realize that it is a drug, he said, adding that the number of users will now increase, with residents fighting each other fiercely for possession of it.
“North Korean people never thought that yeoksam could bring them money until now,” the source said. “It grows outdoors and can be seen everywhere in North Korea.”
Written by Sunghui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story did not make clear that the cannabis travelers are buying dried hemp, a weak version of the illicit form of cannabis commonly known as marijuana.