Holy smokes: South Korean envoy reportedly told Kim to kick cigarette habit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a notoriously heavy smoker, was advised by South Korean National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong to quit smoking during their meeting early last month — an exchange that left Kim’s onetime spy chief reportedly frozen in terror over how the supreme leader might react, a report said Sunday.

The episode, reported by the Asahi Shimbun daily, occurred during a March 5 dinner involving Kim and a South Korean delegation at his ruling party’s headquarters, where Chung and other top South Korean officials became the first from Seoul to meet with the North Korean leader in person since he took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

“How about stopping smoking? It’s bad for your health,” Chung was quoted as saying by Asahi, which cited multiple inter-Korean governmental sources.

Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s former spy chief who has been accused of masterminding the deadly 2010 attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan, and who was attending the dinner, reportedly froze in terror at Chung’s remarks, since admonishing the North’s top leader is the equivalent of blasphemy in a country where he is worshipped as a deity.

However, the leader’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was amused by the words, and clapped her hands, saying, “I always ask him to quit smoking, but he won’t listen to me.”

The paper said that while the unexpected remarks from Chung could have created an awkward moment, Ri’s reaction and her reference to Kim as “my husband,” helped avert such a scenario.

Kim is often seen in state-run media photos with a lit cigarette in his hand, including during visits to hospitals, schools and even during missile launches, where ashtrays have been ubiquitous features in propaganda shots. Kim was even seen smoking a cigarette just meters from the base of an untested, liquid-fueled rocket engine during a missile launch last July.

Little is known about the personal life of Kim, who has been portrayed in some reports as having an explosive temper.

Nam Sung-wook, a Korea University professor who formerly headed the Institute for National Security Strategy, under Seoul’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, told a security meeting of the South’s Liberty Korea Party last September that Kim had once lashed out at his girlfriend at the time while studying in Bern, Switzerland, at around the age of 15 when she suggested he kick his tobacco habit.

“When his then-girlfriend asked him to quit smoking on the phone, apparently concerned with his young age at the time, Kim became furious and responded with vulgar language. It was very shocking (to hear such a story) back then,” Nam said at the time.

But as the North pushes its recent charm offensive, which has resulted in a scheduled summit with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and an anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Pyongyang has worked to soften Kim’s image.

This attempt to improve Kim’s reputation has seen the leader of the nuclear-armed pariah state meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, while also attending a performance by some of rival South Korea’s top musical stars — all within the span of a week.

The charm offensive follows months of soaring tensions during which the North conducted its most powerful nuclear test and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States within striking distance.

Those tests garnered international condemnation.

Beyond its nuclear ambitions, the Kim regime is also widely regarded as one of the most repressive on the planet and has come under fire for its treatment of dissidents and its network of gulags.