Miracle cures and ‘hot motorbikes’ or black market meds and empty shelves: Pharma in North Korea

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Kim Jong Un visits Pugang Pharmaceutic Company - credit KCNA
Kim Jong Un visits Pugang Pharmaceutic Company - credit KCNA
Even if claims about Kumdang-2 are real, access to the drug and other pharmaceuticals in North Korea is limited to those who can pay black market prices according to a UK-based defector.

Last month, Pyongyang-based drugmaker Korea Pugang Pharmaceutic Co announced that its injectable drug Kumdang-2​ – a mixture of rare earths, sugars and ginseng – protects against various ‘malignant epidemics​.’

These epidemics include Ebola, MERS, AIDS and SARS according to the Huffington Post​ and the New York Times​, which reported the news with the same scepticism that accompanied claims about former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s golfing prowess​.

Whether Kundang-2 really is a medical hole-in-one remains to be seen, but the press coverage did not surprise Swiss entrepreneur and North Korea expert, Felix Abt, who attributed the buzz to Pugang CEO Dr Jon.

He told in-pharmatechnologist.com Dr Jon “is a very smart marketer who not only produces pharmaceuticals such as Kumdung-2 but also mineral water and, in his own words, hot motorbikes​.”

North Korea-Swiss JV

Abt’s involvement in North Korea’s pharma sector began in 2005 when he was appointed managing director of Pyongsu Pharma, a Government JV with Swiss investor Parazelsus that operates one of the country's few GMP​ compliant plants.

According to Abt, Pyongsu was the “first North Korean enterprise to win tenders against foreign competitors​” and has supplied drugs to both the IFRC (Intl. Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)​ and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Also under Abt’s leadership the North Korean manufacturer set up a chain of pharmacies and a wholesale business selling own brand products and those made by Bangladeshi drugmaker Square and Egyptian producer, Eipico.

Empty shelves

Abt has now left Korea* – although he still holds shares in Pyongsu – and the picture he paints of the country’s drug sector differs from the view outlined by Joo-il Kim, a North Korean former army captain who defected in 2007.

Kim, who runs the UK-based FreeNK newspaper and keeps a close eye on developments in the country, told us: “North Koreans get drugs at pharmacies to which the government distributes drugs, based on the national supply system.

However, as the North Korean economy and the supply system has been deteriorated to the level of collapse, drugs are not distributed by the authorities and thus there are no drugs to find at pharmacies​” he said.

North Koreans who have money are also “buying drugs at black markets where drugs are smuggled from China” ​according to Kim.

Kim also suggested that drugs donated to North Korea are not reaching those in need. 

If any chance, a foreign pharmaceutical company wants to provide drugs to North Korea, there is no guarantee that the North Korean government would properly distribute them to residents, and not abuse them​.” 

*Felix Abt has documented his experiences in North Korea in the memoir “A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven years in the hermit kingdom​”.

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