As the US continues its state-by-state march toward legalization of marijuana, market forces are giving rise to a boom in the cultivation of pot in North Korea. Yeoksam has long grown wild on the Korean peninsula. It was promoted in the early 1980s at Kim Il Sung’s directive to manage a cooking oil shortage and has subsequently been used as animal feed for rabbits. But reporting from Vice suggests that weed has been used among lower classes as a substitute for state-manufactured cigarettes and is in fact known as ip tambae, or "leaf tobacco." According to recent news stories from Radio Free Asia and Yahoo Japan, Chinese tourists to Rason are snapping it up at bargain basement prices. Both the RFA and Yahoo Japan reporting claims that brokers are purchasing weed at 30 won a kilo from farmers, a little over $4, and selling it for $70 a kilo. China bans marijuana as a controlled substance, but the quantities required for triggering harsh penalties—which include the death penalty for trafficking in hard narcotics—appear high (15 kilos). Stoner web sites suggest that Chinese authorities take a lax attitude toward smoking and the recent coverage finds that Chinese customs officials wave significant quantities through as dried agricultural product.
There is a serious issue here, though. North Korea is—in the words of Justin Hastings’ new book--“A Most Enterprising Country.” Markets respond quickly to foreign demand and cannabis thus provides yet another opportunity for North Korea to operate at the interstices of the world economy. If the pattern for other illicit activities is any indicator, we will see a boom followed by leaky efforts on the part of China to crack down.