North Koreans Refuse Chinese Medicines Amid Vaccine Safety Scandals

New concerns over product safety are leading to a preference for hard-to-afford medicines made in South Korea.

Goods bound for North Korea are shown at a customs checkpoint near the border in Dandong, China, in a file photo.

North Koreans worried by news of vaccine safety scandals in China now distrust Chinese medicines and are refusing to buy them in local markets, North Korean sources say.

News of the scandals has spread in North Korea, brought into the isolated country by North Korean businessmen and other travelers who have recently returned, a source in the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Many patients and their families who used to buy Chinese medicine now seriously question whether they should keep using it or not,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“North Korean residents who have heard that China often has trouble with fake medicines now distrust the Chinese medicines available in local markets, which may also be fake,” the source said.

Medicines including painkillers and fever-reducing drugs brought into North Korea by the Red Cross and other international NGOs have become harder to obtain in recent years as U.N. sanctions punishing North Korea for its illicit nuclear weapons program have taken hold, the source said.

Medicines are excluded from U.N. sanctions, but some NGOs have stopped supplying medicines to North Korea due to a lack of transparency in their distribution, while others have experienced difficulties in purchasing and delivering medicines because of sanctions restricting money flows, sources say. 

“Chinese medicines are now the only ones that people can find in the markets, and if they are fake, I don’t know how we will be able to treat medical conditions,” he said.

South Korean medicines preferred

Meanwhile, medicines available in South Korean grocery stores in China’s Dandong city on the border with North Korea have become increasingly popular with travelers to the region, a source in Dandong said.

“North Koreans are surprised at how effective the South Korean medicines are, and they just sweep them up from the shelves as soon as they are stocked,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“North Korea can’t produce good-quality medicines, so most North Korean residents have had to rely on Chinese medicines,” the source said.

“But as these are often named now in product safety scandals, North Koreans are showing a greater level of trust in medicines made in South Korea,” he said.

Traders, usually ethnic Chinese, now buy South Korean medicines in bulk to bring into North Korea, but these are purchased only by the wealthy North Koreans and high-ranking party workers who can afford them, the source said.

"For ordinary North Korean residents, these medicines are just a 'pie in the sky,'" he said.

String of scandals

On July 30, parents of Chinese children sickened and disabled by substandard vaccines gathered outside the country’s State Health and Family Planning Commission following arrests at a major vaccine manufacturer in the northeastern province of Jilin.

The protest came after vaccine manufacturer Changchun Changsheng issued a recall of its rabies vaccine, which had already been administered to thousands of children across the country, sparking a police investigation at the company.

The Changsheng recall was the latest in a string of tainted or substandard vaccine scandals to hit China, with commentators hitting out at endemic corruption and profiteering in the country's biotech industry.

State-owned vaccine maker Wuhan Institute of Biological Products Co and Changchun Changsheng had previously been found to have sold ineffective or harmful DPT vaccines to inoculate children against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.