North Korea has a dirty little secret. If routinely inflated North Korean agricultural data is to be believed, the country is the 3rd largest producer of industrial hemp in the world. If multiple eyewitness reports and photographic evidence are to believed, North Koreans love to smoke the psychoactive version of cannabis – referred to as ip tambae or yoksam – to unwind after a day of work. The apparently laissez-faire attitude towards this heavily stigmatized drug, from an otherwise overbearing dictatorship, has earned North Korea many puzzled looks and curious journalists.

One might expect drug policy in North Korea to be like that of its southern neighbor, but this is clearly not the case. Marijuana use in South Korea suffers a horrible stigma, smoking there is no joke and drug dealers can face life in jail if not the death penalty. What we know about North Korea paints an entirely different picture. Various reports from returning tourists remind us that you aren’t going to see or smell “weed” while you’re on the state sanctioned tour routes. You’ll have to get out of Pyongyang and go off the beaten trail to see the real life of the average North Korean. One particularly detailed account of marijuana in North Korea comes by way of The Bohemian Blog, whose curator was able to buy a plastic bag full for £0.50 after traveling near the Chinese/North Korean border. Apparently, the cannabis isn’t as strong as selectively bred and indoor grown goods from America. However, the distinct smell, psychoactive effect, and medicinal benefits are undoubtedly there.

Photo: The Bohemian Blog

Smoking up in North Korea comes with its unique rules, though. You aren’t going to find head shops or glass to smoke out of – rolling is king. Unfortunately, the copious amounts of printed propaganda that North Korea provides its populace is not to be folded, for fear of defacing a ruling official’s picture. However, the “safe” text areas of printed newspapers are fair game for rolling joints. According to VICE, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun is North Korea’s preferred rolling paper when it comes to partaking in the mounds of not-so-sticky-icky green.

Dig a little bit into history and you’ll find that North Korea’s dirty little secret is actually shared by all of East Asia. Cannabis has been used medicinally by Koreans for millennia. In the annals of East Asian history, Korea had an on and off relationship as a trade tributary of various Chinese dynasties before it was formally conquered by the Han Dynasty from 108 BCE to 313 CE. During the Han Dynasty, every canton grew hemp by imperial decree and as an agricultural necessity. Ancient East Asians discovered hemp to be superior to bamboo in everything from clothes to cooking oil to bowstrings. The cannabis isn’t from China, though, it’s local. Archaeological studies from within Korea have shown hemp fiber being used as early as four thousand years back, not surprising given that even North Korea is within cannabis’s latitudinal range.

The Han Dynasty was also a breakthrough period for the acceptance of cannabis’s medicinal use – and Korea was most definitely taking note. During that time, Hua Tuo was the first Chinese physician to perform surgery with local anesthetic – a tincture made of wine and cannabis. The Wu Pu Pen T’sao, a pharmacological text published all throughout the Han empire emphasized the different medicinal properties of cannabis seeds versus the resinous bracts surrounding them. Another Han era pharmacopeia, the Shen-nung Pen-tsao Ching, humorously describes potential side effects of ingesting too much medicinal marijuana:

“To take much makes people see demons and throw themselves about like maniacs. But if one takes it over a long period of time one can communicate with the spirits, and one's body becomes light.”

These texts promulgated medicinal marijuana uses that Chinese and Korean shamans had been practicing for centuries. After the arrival of Western influence and religion, many chose to interpret old religious practices, such as medicinal marijuana use, simply as cultural practices. It’s likely that North Korean medical marijuana cultivation has continued on in the mountains for thousands of years. This seemingly incredible theory is supported by widespread reports from American soldiers who describe wild, definitely psychoactive, cannabis all around rural Korea, showing its continued presence after the end of the Han dynasty.

The secret is out. Cannabis has been used medicinally in all of East Asia for thousands of years, it’s only North Korea that has pointedly ignored the Western stigma against marijuana – at least in non tourist regions.