North Korean dies of illness after taking counterfeit medicine

Imported medicines have been unavailable since the border was closed in January 2020.
By Jeong Yeon Park
2021.12.07
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North Korean dies of illness after taking counterfeit medicine A pharmacist waits for customers at a traditional medicine pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this file photo.
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A North Korean man has died after taking fake medication for his flu-like symptoms, one of many such casualties as the country struggles with a severe medicine shortage, sources told RFA.

Most medicines in North Korea are imported from China, but the two countries have not been trading for almost two years, since they closed their border at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020.

Counterfeit medicines have flooded North Korea’s markets, and as cold and flu season draws near, desperate people have no choice but to buy medicines they suspect are fake, on the off chance that they might be real.

“Not long ago, a man in his 60s living in Kilju county suffered from cough and chest pain for more than a month. He bought medicine at the market, but died within a few days,” a resident of the county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service Dec. 1.

“His daughter couldn’t believe the hospital, so she relied on drugs sold at the market. When her father eventually died, she cried and said she found out the hard way that the drugs were all counterfeit,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Kilju county has been hit hard by the flu this year, and the pharmacies are stocking up on the counterfeit drugs, because that is all they can get, according to the source.

“Pharmacists as well as drug dealers claim that counterfeit drugs are equally effective as the real ones because they are made locally with the same ingredients,” the source said.

“There is no way to know what was put in the fake medicines. Usually, the symptoms do not improve even after taking several doses, so it is clear that the counterfeit medicine is a sham. It is very difficult for the public to tell the difference between the genuine drug and a counterfeit because they have the same packaging and shape and are sold at the same price,” said the source.

Among the drugs sold on the market are penicillin and myocilin said to be from various origins, as well as cold medicines resembling products sold in South Korea and Germany. The medicines can go for about 5,500 won (U.S. $1.10) for 100ml on the high end, and 2,000 won on the low end, according to the source.

“Most of these drugs are likely to be counterfeit, as imports of all these drugs have been cut off for years,” said the source.

In the nearby city of Chongjin, hospitals and pharmacies have completely run out of medicine, a resident of the city’s Cheongam district told RFA.

“Patients and their families are struggling to find even a single pill,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“Flu patients are in every region, complaining about the pain. Even if they go to the hospital, they aren’t treated. They can’t get a single pill from the hospital. They only get a prescription for antibiotics or painkillers to take to the market,” the second source said.

Since many of these patients are severely ill, their family members desperately scour the market for the prescribed medicines, knowing that counterfeits are everywhere.

“They are all counterfeit drugs, so you won’t be cured quickly even if you do take them,” the second source said.

“The most popular cold medicines in the market are a Chinese pain reliever called ‘zheng tong pian’ and antibiotics. However, imports of the medicines from China have stopped after the border closure, so residents are begging pharmacies or drug dealers to find them,” said the second source.

Fake zheng tong pian has saturated the market and family members of the ill have no choice but to buy it and hope for the best, the second source said.

“If you are lucky enough to get a real drug from someone you know at a pharmacy or hospital, it can be effective, but in the case of a counterfeit drug that is difficult to distinguish from the real drug, the counterfeits do not work, and the symptoms worsen rapidly and can eventually lead to death.”

It was not clear to RFA whether any of the illnesses described in this report were COVID-19, which North Korea continues to claim has not reached the country.

People who die of COVID-19-like symptoms are hastily cremated before the coronavirus can be determined as the cause of death. RFA previously reported the government does however keep an internal tally of “suspected cases.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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