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FILE PHOTO: Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province. (Daily NK)

In the summer of 2022, North Korean authorities imposed a strict lockdown in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They also strictly limited the private sale of medicine, which led to a rash of deaths among people who had been battling serious illnesses before the pandemic.

Because of the lockdown, people could not go to large hospitals for treatment or medication, nor were they allowed to buy the drugs they needed from private vendors. The result was often physical agony and even death.

The North Korean authorities ruthlessly prosecuted people who made private sales of medicine, considering it a violation of “martial law.”

One couple is caught up in the crackdown

For residents of Onsong County, the punishment meted out to a couple for selling medicine in mid-July 2022 is remembered as emblematic of the government’s campaign against private sales of medications.

When the government’s closure of the border made it impossible to smuggle medicines into the country, the couple began selling drugs they had obtained illegally from the medicine cabinets of major hospitals in North Hamgyong Province and from the emergency medical supplies of the Korean People’s Army units stationed in the area.

The couple was sentenced to nine years’ hard labor after their arrest. The Onsong County authorities made a big issue of their illegal behavior because they had been working to consolidate the government’s control over medical services.

However, since the couple’s main clients were elderly people and people with serious illnesses – in other words, people in urgent need of medication – not a few people felt sorry for the couple’s punishment, a resident of the county recalled.

In any case, the prosecution had a chilling effect on private pharmaceutical vendors, and it became nearly impossible for people to find the medication they needed. People who could neither go to the hospital nor get the medicine they needed were dying like flies, and county residents were outraged by the senseless deaths of family members.

“If the government prevents us from buying or selling medicine and doesn’t provide medicine itself, sick people can’t get their medicine anywhere. Banning travel and policing the private sale of medicines without setting up public distribution channels only led to more deaths,” said one resident.

Government crackdown ultimately ends in failure

The government soon lost its zeal to crack down on private drug vendors, and in 2023 reverted to the old system, allowing county residents to buy their medicine from private vendors again. In short, the authorities were unable to establish a proper drug distribution network and eventually had to turn a blind eye to private sales.

“At present, the government does not consider the private sale or purchase of medicine to be something that deserves as harsh a punishment as was meted out in 2022. In the end, the government’s travel ban and campaign against private medicine sales is a painful memory for county residents, who associate it with all the family members and neighbors who died in vain,” said a county resident.

“The government was completely focused on strict control and punishment, without paying the slightest attention to what people actually needed. Imposing controls without doing anything to compensate for them turned out to be a total wash, and all we have to show for it are the people who died in the process,” she said.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to [email protected].

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