With North Korea suffering from severe shortages of medicines, the authorities have been focusing their efforts on producing traditional herbal remedies, or goryeoyak (hanyak in South Korea). 

The move suggests the authorities are trying to boost the country’s reliance on herbal remedies based on local ingredients as supplies of imported drugs and synthetic drugs that require many imported ingredients have dried up due to the protracted closure of the border.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Wednesday, the Central Committee handed down an order on Jan. 3 to the Ministry of Public Health and provincial, city, and county people’s committees to mobilize all available personnel to guarantee supplies of herbal ingredients needed for goryeoyak.

More specifically, the order called for the ministry and local committees to produce herbal remedies by “autonomously” securing ingredients such as atractylodes root (good for the kidneys) and sophora flavescens (used to treat indigestion, neuralgia, and hepatitis).

However, the order did not specify exactly what kinds of herbs should be collected, nor how much. This breaks from traditional practice in North Korea, where economy-related orders and policy directives are typically very precise.

The source said the Central Committee made the decision because most factories producing synthetic drugs with largely imported ingredients have suspended operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the order calls on authorities to treat patients by producing locally made herbal remedies that are appropriate for regional characteristics and conditions.

According to the results of the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee published in the North Korean media, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – in a rather extraordinary move – made no mention of “self-reliance.”

In this undated photograph, a North Korean is seen gathering herbs in an area near the Sino-Korean border. / Image: Daily NK

Some people interpret this to mean Kim — having long emphasized self-reliance and public unity every New Year — may have signaled a new policy direction.

However, the source said judging from this latest order, the authorities are once again emphasizing self-reliance in the medical sector, calling for local provisions of drugs that patients need rather than foreign assistance.

Meanwhile, people’s committees in Yanggang Province held emergency meetings with factory and enterprise cadres ranked director and above on Jan. 4. These meetings ordered that attendees provide a kilogram of atractylodes root and astragalus propinquus (good for chronic fatigue, appetite loss, and anemia).

The source said that all relevant organizations must send the herbal ingredients they acquire to a regionally designated hospital or factory, and report the results to the Ministry of Public Health under agreement with local health sector officials. This means the order clearly spelled-out steps for officials to take for a “follow-up review.”

North Koreans seem to view the order as a summons to collect herbs, on top of the manure production they have been tasked with since the start of the year. This is why many complain that they are unable to collect herbs when they cannot head into the mountains due to the quarantine ban on inter-regional travel. Many also complain that they cannot rest easy even a single day when new tasks await them every time they open their eyes in the morning.

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