Medicines donated to North Korea by the United Nations and international aid groups are finding their way to local markets and sold at prices lower than those smuggled in from neighboring China, according to sources in the impoverished country.
But the drugs are still unaffordable to all but the rich, some of them said.
The medicines are intended for clinics and orphanages but are diverted by corrupt officials who sell them to syndicates, the sources said.
Vendors are seen selling the mostly U.S.- and South Korean-made medicines at local markets around the country, one Chinese peddler in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang surnamed Jo said.
The drugs are known as “U.N. medicines” to disguise where they come from, since customers fear being labeled as “reactionary” if they are caught with goods from North Korea’s archenemies the U.S. or South Korea, he said.
The prices for the medicines are lower than those for drugs brought by traders from China, Jo said, pointing out that such market forces have ruined his own attempts to sell Chinese equivalents.
“[I] tried to sell Chinese-made medicine in the North Korean local market that have similar uses to the U.N. medicines, but gave up because there are already those ‘U.N. medicines’ that are cheaper than the Chinese ones,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
Because no one in North Korea knows how much the donated drugs would have cost originally, they can’t fetch high prices, he said.
Too expensive for most
But one local resident surnamed Ryu said the donated supplies, though available for sale at local markets, were too expensive for most North Koreans.
“Other residents can also buy medicines coming from those officials at local markets, but only rich residents can afford them,” he said.
He said the supplies came from high-ranking officials, who were profiting from the business of selling foreign-donated medicines they had confiscated.
“High-ranking military officers or government officials are the first beneficiary of the medicines provided for free by the international community,” he said.
North Korea has received more than U.S. $2 billion in foreign aid from U.N. agencies and a handful of authorized private relief agencies since 2003, including food, medicine, water treatment supplies, and other assistance.
Medicines are in high demand in North Korea, where by the government’s own account, “more than 80 percent of village clinics suffer from chronic shortages of medicines and supplies at all levels of the system,” according to the Associated Press.
Seizure of donated aid by North Korea’s elite has been a key point of debate in the international humanitarian community, with some groups arguing that assistance should not be sent if it goes to the authoritarian regime’s most privileged members.
But others have argued that even if the elite benefit the most from the donations, some of the supplies will leak out to reach other segments of society, providing some marginal benefit to the larger population.
Some humanitarian groups work covertly to deliver medicine, food, or other supplies directly to neglected populations in North Korea to avoid the risk of the supplies being corruptly diverted by officials.
One representative from a religious group that has delivered medicines to North Korea in secret for 10 years said that medicines sent publicly by the international community to the reclusive nation amounted to “support for the North Korean regime.”
Only medicine sent secretly could help those on the bottom rungs of society, the representative said.
Another NGO worker warned that information about donated medicines being readily available in local markets could be deliberately spread by North Korean authorities to take advantage of the situation.
Such a move could be aimed at ensuring future donations by making it seem as if the drugs were reaching a broad segment of the population, the worker said.
“There is a high possibility that [information about drugs being available in markets] is just for show,” said the source, a representative South Korean group that has secretly been delivering bread to kindergartens in a city near the Chinese border in North Korea.
Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Doeun Han. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.