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North’s ‘Tobacco Road’ Leads to Opium

Posted February. 01, 2006 03:04,   


Songchon County in South Pyongan Province is well known for its tobacco. During the late 18th Century, the area’s tobacco was favored by Korea’s king for its rich aroma and taste.

The late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung once presented two boxes of the area’s exquisite produce to then South Korean Central Intelligence Agency Director Lee Hoo-rhak, who played an important role in the drafting of the July 4, 1972 joint communiqué. There were rumors that the reason Lee fell from his position a year later was because of his love for the tobacco—along with wild speculations that Lee lost the support of then President Park Chung-hee by smoking it behind his back.

But these days, the soil of the Songchon county is not what it used to be. It’s been heavily polluted by chemical fertilizers, and the area’s only remaining traditional tobacco plantation is what is known as the Ninth North Korean Tobacco Production Facility.

Songchon County tobacco adopted “Crown,” a British brand name, in the early 90s and built a cigarette factory in Yongsong, Pyongyang. At the same time, the North started manufacturing the “555” brand for British American Tobacco (BAT) at a factory in Hoiryong of North Hamgyong Province. Since then, the North has provided the tobacco for a number of counterfeit brands as well, such as fake versions of Marlboro and BAT’s “Craven A.” The target market for these products was usually China. There has even been testimony that Chinese gangs invested in the production of counterfeit cigarettes.

A special working group, known as the “Baekdoraji (white bellflower) group,” developed among several northern region tobacco plantations during the mid 1990s. “White bellflower” is a pseudonym for opium.

The group planted opium in the area’s most fertile land and cultivated it. In July, even young students pitched in to extract opium juice. Students often passed out during the process because of opium’s foul smell, and it was standard procedure for ambulances to be standing by.

All that is left of the plant after the juice extraction process are sweet yellow seeds that resemble hulled millet, which became a popular snack among children, and which tragically led to many underage opium addicts.

The procurement of supplies and fertilizer for the “Baekdoraji group” was a priority of the government. Even fertilizer from South Korea has been used for opium plantation. Lately, however, opium production has been on the wane. The main reason is because the opium is piling up in North Korea’s inventory.