North Korea, one of the last bastions of free, unhindered smoking, a country where just about every adult male can and does light up almost anywhere he pleases and where leader Kim Jong-un is hardly ever seen without a lit cigarette in his hand, is now officially trying to get its people to kick the habit.
Ri Yong-ok, a 57-year-old pharmacist whose heavy-smoking husband nearly died of lung cancer, is leading the charge. Her small anti-smoking center that she manages in Pyongyang has something you almost never see in the North — a no-smoking sign placed prominently above its entrance.
The potential health benefit to the nation could be tremendous. Ri estimated about 54 per cent of adult male North Koreans smoke — a higher figure than the 43.9 per cent given by a World Health Organization report released at the end of 2014.
North Korea has toyed with the idea of pushing harder to get smokers to kick the habit before — Ri’s humble anti-smoking center has been around since 2007. But it has stepped up its effort to at least provide more education of smoking’s health risks since an anti-smoking decree was made by Kim in April.
The start of the new drive prompted speculation in the foreign media that Kim himself had quit, since cigarettes were conspicuously missing from his hands in photos carried by the state media of his “on-the-spot guidance” visits around the country from around that time. The buzz didn’t last long. He was pictured smoking on a visit to a children’s camp in June.