North Korean authorities crack down on medicinal drugs

Medications sold in North Korean markets
Medications sold in North Korean markets. Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities are cracking down on the sale of medicinal drugs between individuals in the city of Sinuiju, sources in the region have told Daily NK.

“Public health officials and police have started to crack down on the sale of medicinal drugs,” said a North Pyongan Province-based source on May 3. “They are prohibiting sales between private individuals.”

“The state is now only allowing medical supplies like drugs to be sold at licensed outlets,” the source added. “Officials are essentially making it clear that drugs shouldn’t be sold outside of pharmacies and are warning that people who conduct such sales will be punished.”

Article 38 of North Korea’s Medicines and Medical Supplies Management Act states that drugs can only be sold by pharmacies and medical supply sales stalls [at local markets]. The act also states that drugs can only be sold if they have a “sales stamp” issued by the country’s central public health authorities or to those with prescriptions issued by hospitals.

The crackdown on drug sales appears to be part of the regime’s efforts to develop North Korea into a “normal country.”

As previously reported by Daily NK in May, the August 4 Group, a new committee comprised of local police, prosecutors and Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) officials, has been tasked with ferreting out illegal activities in the Sino-North Korean border region. One report stated that the enforcement group recently confiscated drugs from a medicines wholesaler located in North Hamgyong Province.

The authorities may have realized that the sale of drugs between individual sellers lacking medical knowledge could pose public health risks.

The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), in its 2018 North Korean Human Rights White Paper, reported that “Ordinary people lacking medical knowledge are selling drugs, which could lead to fatalities among buyers of these drugs,” and that, “There are cases in which ordinary people are using heroin and other illicit drugs to treat their ailments because they are unaware of the full risks.”

The crackdown in Sinuiju, however, does not appear to be part of a broader nationwide crackdown on medicinal drugs. “I haven’t heard about any crackdown on medicinal drugs,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK on June 1.

North Korea’s medical system collapsed in the mid-1990s and still fails to provide proper medical services to the population.

Most North Koreans buy medicines prescribed by unlicensed doctors at local pharmacies, informal drug wholesalers, or at local markets. The authorities may be hesitant about conducting a nationwide crackdown because they believe such a crackdown could backfire, with residents disapproving of such measures.

The Sinuiju crackdown lead to expressions of discontent by locals who criticized the government’s inability to provide adequate healthcare services.

“North Korean hospitals don’t have suitable drug supplies, so patients have to buy medicines and bribe doctors to get treatment. If the authorities shut down all the sources of medicines, there will be nowhere left to go,” a separate source in North Pyongan Province reported local residents as saying.

“Officials all use Chinese or South Korean medicines because they’re better quality, so the crackdowns seem ridiculous. Merchants selling medication don’t know why the authorities are cracking down on sales and feel like authorities are treating them unfairly because they are only selling what people need and what the hospitals are failing to provide.”