North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not known for a clean, healthy lifestyle. This is a young man whose ballooning waistline and sudden removal from the public eye almost two years ago was widely (if dubiously) attributed to a powerful addiction to Swiss cheese. Now, however, there is widespread suspicion that the North Korean supreme leader may have finally kicked one of his nastiest habits: smoking.
According to reports in South Korean news outlets like Yonhap and Korea Herald, Kim hasn't been pictured with a cigarette for at least two months. A quick look at recently released pictures appears to confirm this: The last hint of a cigarette was in mid-May, when Kim was shown sitting next to an ashtray.
There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious about the idea that the North Korean leader may have given up his beloved smokes, however. South Korean media reports on the North are often unreliable. Additionally, Kim's relationship with cigarettes goes back a long time: He is thought to have begun smoking when he was 15 years old. Over the years, he has frequently been photographed chain-smoking at official functions, much like his father, the late Kim Jong Il, had been before him.
Such a smoking habit isn't unusual for North Koreans. According to NK News, in the 1990s it was thought that around 90 percent of all North Korean men smoked, though almost no women did. Those numbers have dropped since: Around 43.9 percent of North Korean men smoked in 2014, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. These numbers are still high compared with, say, the United States, where roughly 20 percent of men smoke and 15 percent of women smoke; it's closer to South Korea, where 42 percent of men and 6 percent of women smoke.
The move away from smoking can likely be attributed to a North Korean anti-smoking campaign that began in the mid-2000s. Where smoking was once seen as a normal, perhaps even healthy and sociable, activity, North Korean school children are now taught about its negative effects. Recent reports in North Korean state media suggested that the country was establishing "non-smoking research stations" and that warning notices were now being placed on cigarettes manufactured in North Korea. "The number of nonsmokers is remarkably increasing with each passing day," Korean Central News Agency wrote in an article published May 4.
Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korea Leadership Watch, expressed skepticism that Kim would have really given up smoking. "In looking at [North Korean state media] photos they don't show the desks or tables ... where his ashtray is usually placed," Madden wrote in an email, suggesting that North Korea may have "eliminated these depictions as part of the anti-smoking campaigns." Madden did suggest that Kim, a relatively new father, could potentially have given up smoking – or at least, not allow himself to be caught smoking in public – in a bid to set a good example to his daughter.
However, there was something else in recent photographs of Kim that was hard to dispute: "He has lost some weight during the last couple of months," Madden observed.
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