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THE INVESTOR
September 18, 2019
Big Reunion

Economy

[BIG REUNION] NK drug stores get modern look, but only for privileged

  • PUBLISHED :April 26, 2018 - 10:15
  • UPDATED :April 26, 2018 - 10:28
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[THE INVESTOR] North Korea’s pharmaceutical industry recently got a facelift involving facility expansion and overall modernization, but only a limited number of high-ranking officials and elite can avail of the benefits, according to defectors.

Leading the changes is Pyongsu Pharma, a joint venture between Swiss investment firm Parazelsus and North’s Health Ministry.

 

A pharmacy run by Pyongsu Pharma



With a focus on antibiotics, the company produces some 187 million tablets and 57 capsules including aspirin and liver disease treatment a year. Since its foundation in 2002, it has opened 11 chain stores in Pyongyang and Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province, where many of the North’s well-off people who can afford medicines live.

“Rich people are able to receive quality medical services and buy medicines, but ordinary citizens still depend on folk remedies and opium for instant pain relief,” Lee Joon-hyuk, who served in the North Korean military for 12 years before escaping to the South in 2015, told The Investor. Now he works at the Institute for National Security Strategy as a senior researcher.

While some North Korean experts, including Sookmyung Women’s University professor Gwak In-ok, said the World Health Organization-certified Pyongsu Pharma contributed to the localization of medicines and brought new vitality to drug production, the persistent shortage of medicines could not be addressed.


 

A pharmacy run by Pyongsu Pharma



“You can never satisfy the demand with only one company, as production at other local plants has been phased out and they have shutdown due to the lack of resources,” said Lee Hye-kyung, a North Korean defector who works as a pharmacist in South Korea. 



The defectors said North Korea’s founding commitment of universal health care has been derailed for long. 

“Once you’re hospitalized, you have to give a bribe like fruits or meat to get medicines. You’re also required to pay a patrol ticket which costs about US$20 to call an ambulance,” Lee said.

Heavy dependence on humanitarian aid and traditional herbal medicines have been viewed as the central characteristics of the country’s health care industry, which is incompetent to deal with an increasing number of patients with non-infectious diseases like diabetes and hypertension.

“In an emergency situation, you can get some basic medicines from state-run pharmacies but others depend on private drug stores where you should pay for medical supplies from the United Nations,” Lee said.

By Park Han-na (hnpark@heraldcorp.com)

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