UPDATED at 3:13 P.M. ET on 2018-11-16
Smuggling of medicines between North and South Korea has traditionally gone from the wealthy South to the impoverished North, where scarcity has created a lucrative smuggling route through China to serve those northerners who have the means to buy higher-quality drugs.
But now, a cheaper North Korean version of a purported clot buster drug is reportedly finding its way into the South.
Lumbrokinase, made from the extract of earthworms, is widely sold as a dietary supplement and may help with conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to Verywell health, a U.S.-based online health resource.
The drug goes for about 90,000-100,000 won ($79-$89) per 60-count bottle on the South Korean shopping website Auction, a subsidiary of eBay. However, smuggled North Korean lumbrokinase can be had for about half that price, RFA sources say.
An ethnic Korean trader from the Chinese border city of Dandong who takes frequent business trips by ferry to South Korea’s western port city of Incheon told RFA’s Korean Service that “North Korean lumbrokinase is being smuggled into South Korea in large quantities.”
“I find it strange that the smuggling is going from the North to the South,” the trader said.
“South Koreans can buy the medicine directly from ethnic-Chinese merchants from North Korea or from managers of North Korean restaurants operating in Dandong or Shenyang, China,” said the source.
Travelers are able to avoid seizure by carrying small quantities of the drug and saying it is for personal use.
The trader said, “South Korean customs will confiscate medicines carried in bulk by merchants but they allow one or two bottles for personal use.”
Being found with North Korean products in the South isn’t quite the same as the reverse.
“South Korean authorities have eased restrictions on their citizens entering the country with North Korean goods, but their counterparts in the North maintain strict control over South Korean goods entering the North,” the source said.
Another source, a merchant who frequently travels between Dandong and South Korea’s Incheon said, “Ethnic Chinese who live in North Korea can travel to Dandong and sell lumbrokinase for 80-100 Chinese Yuan (about $12-$14) per bottle.”
“Merchants can then sell these in South Korea for about 50,000 won ($44), a huge markup,” the source said.
A cardiovascular specialist based in South Korea warned against the use of illegally purchased lumbrokinase.
“Patients with heart issues need to take exactly the right medicine for their conditions, so they need the proper prescriptions from a specialist,” the source said. “Clot buster drugs don’t simply dissolve blood clots, they can also cause deterioration in the blood vessels themselves,” the source added.
“If patients take North Korean medicines, none of which have been clinically verified, they may suffer from serious side effects,” said the specialist.
South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety told RFA that “[The issue] is being reviewed by relevant departments."
"We are trying to obtain and analyze samples of North Korean lumbrokinase,” the Ministry said.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.