It is no secret that cigarettes (especially counterfeit) play a big part in North Korea’s economy – see Time,  North Korea Economy Watch, but they are not a part of Kim Jong-il’s life.  KJI is apparently leading the charge for good health.  Once a heavy smoker who preferred menthols, he gave up the nasty habit in 2007 on the advice of his doctors. 

According to the Sydney Morning Herald (May 1, 2010) he is one of the few leaders in Asia to not smoke:

Asia’s gathering health crisis from smoking cries out for more examples from the top. Unfortunately, the region’s only leader really coming out strongly against smoking so far is Kim Jong-il of North Korea.

But is he?

The Heritage Foundation (April 7, 2010) isn’t quite so sure.

Initial judgments about Kim’s health have been reassessed as a result of Kim’s August 2009 meetings with former President Bill Clinton and Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun, during which the North Korean leader was described as robust and in full control of his faculties, but there are continuing concerns about Kim’s health, and a sudden collapse is possible at any time. Life expectancy for stroke victims is low, particularly for someone like Kim, who has resumed smoking and drinking.

The Heritage Foundation might have been referring to the incident in which KJI took a drag or two from a cigarette while reviewing a cigarette manufacturing plant.  According to Yonhap (February 25, 2009) and here:

Kim, believed to have quit smoking years ago on his doctors’ advice, is shown in two North’s Korean Central News Agency photos taking a puff while touring a northwestern cigarette factory. With one glove off, Kim takes a pull on a cigarette while accompanying officials watch him with amused smiles. In the other photo, he exhales smoke, apparently giving a word to officials, which one of them writes down in a notepad.

Of course, many people fall off the wagon once or twice and KJI is no exception.  According to  KJI’s Japanese sushi cook:

When I lined up the Japanese cigarettes on the baccarat table, Kim Jong Il smoked only the menthol kinds. At the time, he had been smoking a British brand called Rothmans Royals, but he said he had wanted to try Japanese menthols as well. After that he smoked Cartier menthols, but from 1998 to 1999 he quit smoking altogether.

As we all know, North Korea is filled with contradictions.  Apparently there is an anti-smoking movement spreading throughout the North.  France 24 (May 31, 2010) reports:

Speakers at a Pyongyang event marking World No-Tobacco Day stressed the increasing social concern over the practice, the official news agency reported.

The agency, in a separate report, noted that a non-smoking campaign has intensified, with smoking banned in theatres, cinemas, schools, hospitals, sidewalks and other public places.

Violators in the hardline state “are exposed to legal sanctions,” it said without elaborating.

The country’s best-known convert is leader Kim Jong-Il, a former heavy smoker who was reportedly advised by his doctors in 2007 to quit because of heart problems. A smoking ban was imposed at all the venues he visits.

The Seoul government is not to be out done and can actually claim to be leading the way – providing the bill passes.  According to the Korea Times (March 22, 2010):

“I suggested the bill to protect pregnant women and children from second-hand smoke on streets and at other public spaces,” Park Hee-sung, a city councilor, said. “It also secures the right to smoke by designating smoking areas.”

According to a survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs last year, nearly 60 percent of respondents complained about second-hand smoke in public areas. More than 66 percent had complaints about second-hand smoke on streets and 62 percent in restaurants.

The bill would affect public areas such as streets, parks, plazas and outside of municipal buildings. These areas would be required to set up a separate smoking section.

I wonder where all these Korean high school juniors are smoking (Korea Times, May 31, 2010)?