The severe shortage of medicines in North Korea following the shutdown of the country’s borders in late January is causing concern among sufferers of diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses, Daily NK has learned. 

In particular, North Korea’s recent move to restrict foreign imports into the country last month seems to have compounded difficulties in acquiring certain medicines at local markets. 

“People can survive without items like soybean oil, MSG and cosmetics, but people are worried because insulin is no longer imported into the country,” a North Pyongyan Province-based source told Daily NK on May 20. “Even if insulin is in stock at a local market it’s just too expensive to buy.” 

LACK OF DRUGS

North Korea has only a limited capacity to manufacture pharmaceuticals locally, which means that many drugs are imported from abroad. 

There are around 10 pharmaceutical factories located in Sunchon, Pyongyang, Hamhung and other areas of the country. These facilities mainly produce antibiotics, antimicrobial medicines and other synthetic medicines but rely on imports of pharmaceutical raw materials.

Following the closure of North Korea’s borders in late January and the subsequent spike in medicine prices (article in Korean) at local markets, sellers reportedly started hoarding locally-produced antibiotics at one point. 

North Koreans commonly self-diagnose their illnesses and head to local markets to purchase medicines, largely because acquiring medicines at local hospitals or pharmacies is difficult. Predictably, this has led to frequent health problems among North Koreans due to medicine overdoses.

The lack of pharmaceuticals in the country has now made it difficult for even wealthy North Koreans to get the medicines they want, Daily NK sources further reported. 

“Many party officials and traders have diabetes or high-blood pressure because they drink so much alcohol. The [recent] restrictions on trade have made it difficult for even these people to get their medication,” said another North Pyongan Province-based source, who further speculated that there are “many people whose lives are at risk.”

SMUGGLING ISN’T A CURE-ALL, EITHER

North Korea has implemented harsh punishments for those engaging in smuggling, but some smugglers continue to import what they can. Most of these imports consist of food, which is relatively easy to obtain and in high demand in North Korea. 

Daily NK sources suggested that, at one point, there were rumors that the current restrictions on imports from China could have been lifted in mid-May. 

“People had hope because there were rumors about trade restarting soon, but the recent discovery of a COVID-19 case in Shenyang now has made people think that trade won’t resume any time soon,” the source said. 

While the international community has given North Korea medical gear and supplies to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has received much less medicine to fight more conventional illnesses. 

North Korea continues to permit smuggling over the Sino-North Korean border of construction materials and other state-sanctioned supplies. In contrast, the state has moved to completely ban smaller-scale smuggling focused on basic necessities.

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.