North Korea’s prescription for prosperity

Korea Times
Ting-I Tsai
2/21/2007

North Korean drug companies hope that updated versions of traditional medicines promising – among other things – to treat impotence and kidney dysfunction can help cure what ails the isolated Stalinist country’s stagnant economy.

In the hope of earning badly needed hard currency by exploiting the nation’s ancient herbal-medicine traditions, North Korea’s pharmaceutical companies are producing “various traditional health products through [modern] technologies”. The effectiveness of these medicines, however, has not been scientifically proved.

The medication that has drawn the most attention is probably Neoviagra-YR, developed by the Korea Oriental Instant Medicinal Center, which promises to improve a person’s sexual capabilities, ease bone pain, and cure kidney dysfunction and arteriosclerosis.

“I got my cute baby after I took two boxes of YR. This is definitely good medication,” its advertisement quoted Pyongyang resident Kim Ming-ze, 35, as saying.

Another patient who supposedly benefited from the medication was Kim Chong-ze, 45, who said: “I hadn’t had sex for three months. My sexual function normalized after I took four boxes of YR. I can promise that this is the magic medication of the 21st century.” However, the telephone number of the Pyongyang-based company given on the advertisement was wrong.

In Beijing’s Korean neighborhood, a booth at a market sells a box of Neoviagra for US$20.

Boothkeeper Pak Mun-bin emphasized that Neoviagra is far more effective than Pfizer’s Viagra, but failed to explain how it can be used to treat both bone pain and erectile dysfunction.

He added that that the booth sold as many as 700 boxes per month, with South Koreans being major customers.

“North Korea may be a small country. but its herbal medicines are nonetheless better than Chinese ones. At least there are no fake medicines,” Pak said.

If Neoviagra is not quite exotic enough for some customers, North Korea’s Pugang Pharmaceutic Co offers another choice, the “Queen’s Appeal”, which is described as “a volcano of energies and the key to happiness”.

Its official website described it as a herbal dietary elixir formulated from the extracts of wild Epimedium koreanum, which “was used by the kings, the queens and the court ladies in ancient Korea. Makes you wild in sexual life and brings you great energy. Adverse effects: none. Contra-indications: none.”

The North Koreans are also flogging medications that they claim are capable of preserving youth.

Among the “health foods” being introduced, the most widely promoted is “Royal Blood-Fresh”. According to the package, it is a traditional health food “formulated via a high tech from fermented soybeans of the olden royal palace”. The manufacturer, Pugang Pharmaceutic Co, claims it will “make you younger and cleverer. Students will result better in exams.” It recommends taking one to two tablets for prevention, three tablets three times daily for chronic cases, and five to nine tablets three to eight times daily for acute cases. A 160-tablet bottle sells for US$39 in Beijing.

For those worried about bird flu , the North Koreans claim to have a better cure than Tamiflu, the Kumdang-2 Injection, which is “extracted from Kaesong Koryo ginseng cultivated by specific micro-elementary fertilizers involving some ultra-highly purified medicinal rare-earth elements”. An English research team, its introduction claims, concluded that the medication could “prevent and cure the virus-originated epidemic diseases including Bird’s Flu”.

Its official website described its service as a “worldwide daily supply”, with medication distributed to its representative offices in 13 countries around the world, including Cuba, Syria, Japan, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. A Pugang Han Yong Gon sales representative said any international purchase is deliverable by courier and customers can receive their medication within days.

The Pugang Pharmaceutic Co, founded in 1983, has developed numerous medications by incorporating Korea’s traditional herbs in the production of “high-technology” products, including Aphorodisia 2, a cure for vaginal diseases. The company says it operates nine state-of-the-art pharmaceutical factories in accordance with the industry’s GMP (good manufacturing practices) standard and has averaged an annual turnover of $25 million. All of the medications are legally approved by the local medical authority.

According to Western experts familiar with the nation’s medical services, most of the medications are widely distributed to local pharmacies.

One expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “North Koreans, Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese, etc, are always looking for ‘natural’ ways to reverse aging, cure [or prevent] all diseases with one potion, and to strengthen their sexual potency. And if they can make money while doing it, so much the better,” the expert said. Even if doubts do exist about the efficacy of the so-called “miracle medicines”, the expert noted: “It’s just that they want to believe in them.”

Taiwanese pharmacists and experts in traditional Chinese medicine question the legitimacy of the North Korean medicines.

Gau Churn-shiouh, a professor of the National Taiwan University’s school of pharmacy, noted that these medications “sound more like old-fashioned Chinese medications that could cure everything” that have no sound scientific basis.

Furthermore, experts in Chinese traditional medicine pointed out that all kinds of medications are poisonous, and taking them without diagnosis could lead to illness.

Hung Chin-lieh, also a professor at the National Taiwan University, said that the efficacy of ginseng is relatively limited compared with other herbs, and is not applicable to every single patient.

“The efficacies claimed by the advertisements look more like exaggerations. The main problem is that the ingredients of these medications are so vague. Without adopting the measure of ‘evidence-based medicine’, the North Koreans really should not have promoted the efficacies,” Hung said.

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  • Bob Walsh

    Actually, the NK’s do have a few things going on. They have a tetrodocaine analgesic injection which is well-documented as a sodium channel blocker. A Canadian company, Wex Technologies, tried but failed to develop something similar, based on tetrodotoxin, derived from blowfish ovaries.

    Another group of surgeons in NK have a practice for breast cancer surgery techniques they have developed, using low-dose tamoxifen and electrostimulation. From what I know, they have a good cure rate.

    As for the other stuff, it’s very much “buyer beware”. At the Da Jong Hotel in Beijing (nice place, has a good NK restaurant), they sell neoviagra, but also NK knockoff’s of cialis. I suspect there’s probably a bit of viagra’s active ingredient in the neoviagra.

    (South Korean) traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) people I’ve talked to seem to have greater trust in NK TCM products than those coming from China, insisting that they have fewer contaminants from industrial pollution. I’ve never seen any published literature that supports this assertion.

    -And therein lies the problem. I don’t doubt that the Nk’s have some cool stuff, but they don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals. In the world of evidence-based medicine, if it’s not published and reviewed, then it just didn’t happen.

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