North Korea is attempting to resolve a dire shortage of medicines by ordering hospitals to begin manufacturing their own medications, Daily NK has learned. 

“At the end of May, the Ministry of Public Health issued an order to hospitals in each province, city and county to manufacture their own medicines,” a source told Daily NK on July 2. “With no facilities to produce medicine, there have been complaints that carrying out the order is impossible.” 

Through this order, North Korean authorities appear to be passing on the responsibility for solving the shortage of medicines onto hospitals.

The physical infrastructure and human capital required for medicine production in North Korea is believed to have collapsed after the Arduous March of the 1990s. The period’s economic hardship made it difficult to invest in manufacturing facilities, develop raw material for medicines, or train pharmaceutical professionals.

North Korea has tried to improve its medicine production by modernizing the Mannyon Pharmaceuticals Factory and Tosong Pharmaceuticals Factory, but these efforts have not been enough to prevent medicine shortages. 

As a result, the country remains highly reliant on imported medicines. The closure of the Sino-North Korean border in late January has led to severe shortages of medicines, and the prices of antibiotics, for example, have been skyrocketing.

The Korean Development Institute’s May publication of the Review of the North Korean Economy noted that North Korean imports of medicine from China had fallen by 13.23% compared to the same period last year. 

“The government’s order to have hospitals produce medicine using equipment and instruments found in specialized factories makes no sense,” the source told Daily NK, adding, “This has left hospital administrators scratching their heads about what to do.” 

Even if the equipment were in place, the lack of raw materials and reagents in North Korea is also a problem, the source continued, adding, “Even if you use domestic ingredients as a substitute, it’s impossible to make the medicines we need.”

North Korean hospitals will likely continue to focus on manufacturing “Koryo medicines” rather than Western medicines to meet quotas outlined in the order, according to the source. 

Koryo medicine is similar to the “Oriental medicine” prevalent in South Korea and uses medicinal herbs available in the country. North Korean authorities are actively encouraging the production of Koryo medicines as well. 

Koryo medicines are believed to be poor substitutes for vaccines and antibiotics because they are not produced in specialized facilities and may have contaminants that could lead to further illnesses in patients.

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

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.