A file photo of Hyesan taken by a source in the country. (Daily NK)

The prices of certain medications have skyrocketed in Hyesan following a surge in the number of people suffering symptoms linked with COVID-19, Daily NK has learned. 

In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, a source in Yanggang Province told Daily NK that the price of medications in Hyesan spiked with the city’s surging number of fever cases.

“The news of the COVID-19 outbreak and the order to switch to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system also impacted the rise in prices,” he said.

According to the source, prior to Hyesan going into full lockdown on Saturday, the city’s pharmacies and markets were selling medications used to treat colds as COVID-19 treatments, including amoxicillin, albuterol, ciprofloxacin, A.P.C., and cough medicine.

However, he said prices began to rise after the North Korean media made public the deliberations of the recent politburo meeting that acknowledged for the first time a domestic case of COVID-19.

Amoxicillin, an antibiotic to treat bacterial infections, went from KPW 950 a pill to KPW 3,300. Albuterol, used to treat bronchial asthma,  chronic bronchitis and breathing difficulties, went from KPW 1,300 a pill to KPW 5,000, while the pneumonia treatment ciprofloxacin went from KPW 1,100 to KPW 4,000.

A pill of the painkiller and fever reducer A.P.C. spiked from KPW 1,200 to KPW 5,000, while a pill of cough medicine went from KPW 1,600 to KPW 4,800.

All this suggests that there has been, at most, a 3.5 fold increase in medication prices in the city.

Drug Prices in Hyesan (per pill, prices in KPW)

Name of Medication Mid-April May 14
1 Amoxicillin 950 3300
2 Albuterol 1300 5000
3 A.P.C 1200 5000
4 Cough Medicine 1600 4800
5 Ciprofloxacin 1100 4000
6 Ciprofloxacin Injection (price is per ampule) 23,000 45,000

The skyrocketing drug prices appear to have resulted several factors, including drug scarcities driven by the protracted closure of the border. Merchants, cadres and donju also engaged in panic buying after the government declared the switch to the “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”

During an emergency politburo meeting on Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un criticized the failure to correct several “negative phenomena” that were appearing in the nationwide distribution and sale of medications. The criticism provides further evidence that panic buying and the illegal distribution of drugs is taking place in North Korea.

In fact, Hyesan residents found themselves unable to buy medicines with the lockdown of the city on Saturday.

When local fever cases rose on Sunday, the day after the lockdown, Hyesan’s emergency anti-epidemic organization permitted an hour of movement so people could buy medicine, but this did not provide much help. That is to say, people were unable to purchase medicine because pharmacies and markets had little or nothing left. 

In fact, the city’s residents are complaining among themselves that “there are no medicines if we have money, but when there are medicines, we don’t have money.”

The source said that despite the skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, the government keeps issuing “absurd” orders like “take cold medicine because it’s just like the flu” and “pick and eat willow leaves.”

“A growing number of people are complaining about the lethargic behavior on the part of the government,” he added. 

North Korea’s free healthcare system virtually collapsed during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. With hospitals providing just diagnoses but no medicines, North Koreans have long obtained drugs on their own through local markets. The spread of COVID-19 has once again confirmed the poor state of North Korea’s healthcare system.

While there is talk of drugs entering from China, many people believe that those medications are destined for Pyongyang, not areas outside of the capital city. Kim Jong Un issued a special order for the military to distribute drugs, but experts say this will fail due to corruption on the part of military cadres.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

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

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Lee Chae Un is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. She can be reached at dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.