SEOUL, South Korea — Nobody, except maybe his wife, dares to chastise Kim Jong-un on his home turf, even when it comes to the North Korean leader’s penchant for a smoke, including while visiting a children’s hospital.
So the adoption of a tough new law this week in North Korea that bans cigarette smoking in public places — with penalties for violators — has created a conundrum. What if Mr. Kim, who is regarded as a faultless deity in North Korea, breaks that law?
For years, North Korea has urged its people to quit smoking, posting no-smoking signs on public buildings and starting a national antismoking website. And for years, despite a family history of smoking-related illnesses, Mr. Kim has puffed away, contradicting the admonition his underlings have given everyone else.
The new “tobacco-prohibition law,” unanimously adopted by the Supreme People’s Assembly on Wednesday, makes that contradiction even more brazen.
The law “stipulates the rules which all the institutions, organizations and citizens must follow in protecting the lives and health of the people and providing more cultured and hygienic living environments,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Thursday. It applies to such public spaces as theaters, schools and hospitals.
According to South Korean and United States officials who have met Mr. Kim, no one in the country, with the possible exception of his wife, Ri Sol-ju, can tell him to quit. The totalitarian “Supreme Leader” of the isolated nation is considered incapable of error and above the law. People are taught to treat him as godlike. Schoolchildren and soldiers regularly sing a patriotic ode to the Kim family, “No Motherland Without You!”
On North Korean state media, Mr. Kim can often be seen taking a drag of his cigarette while inspecting factories, talking with missile engineers, riding the subway and even visiting schools and children’s hospitals.
Mr. Kim was already drinking and smoking when he was in his teens, according to a Japanese sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, who served the Kim family in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and later recounted his experiences in memoirs and interviews.
Although Mr. Fujimoto said Mr. Kim likes the luxury Yves Saint Laurent brand, the North Korean leader’s preferences are not clear. North Korean news photographs have also shown him dragging on the country’s premium 727 brand, which derives its name from July 27, 1953, the date of the armistice that halted the Korean War.
Mr. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, is still widely revered among North Koreans as the founder of their country. He often appeared in public holding a cigarette.
Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim has tried to resemble his grandfather in looks, sporting short hair and a Mao suit. Outside analysts have speculated that Mr. Kim also gained weight to copy his grandfather’s hulking build, as part of a propaganda strategy.
The Kim rulers in North Korea have a history of cardiovascular diseases that South Korean intelligence officials have attributed to heavy smoking, drinking and obesity. Kim Il-sung died in 1994 of heart failure. His son and successor, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in 2008 and died of cardiac arrest in 2011. Kim Jong-un himself has been plagued by rumors of poor health, including diabetes, cardiovascular trouble and ankle pains caused by his weight.
Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, introduced the first antismoking campaign in North Korea, although he struggled to quit himself. He famously said, “the three greatest fools of the 21st century are those who can’t use the computer, can’t sing and can’t quit smoking.”
“The cigarette is like a gun pointed at your heart!” said one of the antismoking slogans North Korea adopted under Kim Jong-il.
More than 46 percent of adult men in North Korea were smokers in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. But defectors from the country said that the percentage could be much higher, as men take to smoking in their teens as a source of entertainment in a place with few alternatives. North Korea claims that no women smoke.
A common joke among North Korean men, according to defectors, is that it is possible to go “one day without eating, but no days without smoking.” Packs of cigarettes are used to bribe North Korean officials, they say.
A lifelong smoker, Kim Jong-il, stopped after a stroke, but was said to have later resumed, according to South Korean officials.
His son, too, has found it hard to kick the habit.
According to Bob Woodward’s recent book “Rage,” when the American nuclear envoy, Andy Kim, met Mr. Kim in 2018 in Pyongyang, he saw the North Korean leader light up and told him it was bad for his health. Mr. Kim’s top aide, Kim Yong-chol, and his sister, Kim Yo-jong, both froze. No one in North Korea ever spoke to their leader that way, except for one person. According to Mr. Woodward, quoting Andy Kim, Ms. Ri acknowledged that was right: “I’ve told my husband about the dangers of smoking,” she said.
And in July, two months after North Korea announced that it was expanding its no-smoking zone policies, Central TV showed Mr. Kim inspecting a new general hospital under construction in Pyongyang.
He was smoking.