North Korea Blocks Sale of 'Unpatriotic' Foreign Cigarettes

nk-cigarette-feb-2013.jpg North Korean soldiers smoke cigarettes on the bank of the Yalu River across from the Chinese city of Dandong, Feb. 11, 2013.

North Korean authorities are blocking the sale of foreign-made cigarettes in the reclusive, nuclear-armed state following a declaration from the country’s leader that smoking imported tobacco products is “unpatriotic,” according to North Korean sources.

The directive from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was conveyed at the end of November in a series of “executive lectures” given by officials across the country, and has already caused cigarettes produced abroad to vanish from local markets, sources said.

“Beginning around Nov. 20, Chinese cigarettes have been blocked from sale in the markets,” a source in Yanggang province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Rumors of the coming clampdown had been circulating already, though, so the merchants haven’t suffered any significant losses,” the source added.

Another source in Yanggang, who had attended a lecture condemning cigarettes produced abroad, said that news of the clampdown was received badly by those attending.

“When Kim Jong Un’s statement that smoking foreign cigarettes is ‘unpatriotic’ was raised, people began to make a commotion,” he said.

“There is no real domestic tobacco in North Korea,” the source said, adding that China is the main source of the tobacco used even in manufacturing cigarettes in the North.

Kim himself likes to smoke foreign brands, especially Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes, according to the Kim family’s former Japanese sushi chef, Fujimoto Kenji.

Domestic production favored

Also speaking to RFA, a source in North Hamgyong province, also bordering China, asked why the patriotism of North Korean smokers should be so bluntly called into question.

“The important thing is not what you say, but when and how you say it,” the source said.

“[Kim Jong Un] says nothing about the pathetic condition of our country, so is it really possible for him as North Korea’s leader to talk about ‘patriotism’?” he asked.

“I don’t know," he said.

Some experts say Kim’s move to discourage North Koreans from smoking foreign brands could be part of an effort to ramp up domestic production.

North Korea appears now to be “gearing up to increase its domestic cigarette production,” with the country importing Swiss tobacco-processing machinery components worth $180,000 from January to June of this year alone, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“Recommending against smoking imported cigarettes would be Kim Jong Un’s version of an import substitution policy,” he said, noting that North Korea has been “notorious for employing state assets [cigarette factories] to produce and export counterfeit cigarettes [including Marlboros].

'Crackdown' questioned

However, Scarlatoiu said he sees no evidence of a massive crackdown on foreign brands.

A nationwide crackdown on brands produced outside the country “would involve a very visible process of inspecting markets and confiscating foreign cigarettes,” Scarlatoiu said.

“I am not aware of any evidence of any such large-scale operation,” he said.

Meanwhile, North Korean counterfeits of international cigarette brands, including Marlboro, have become a “lucrative trade item” for the cash-strapped country over the years, with production beginning in the 1990s and expanding in 2002, an April 2014 report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said.

Major factories for counterfeit production are reportedly based in Rajin and in the capital Pyongyang, according to the report, titled “Illicit: North Korea’s Evolving Operations to Earn Hard Currency.”

Reported by Sung-hui Moon. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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