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North Korea Turns To Traditional Medicines And Antibiotics To Fight COVID Crisis


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Kim Jong-Un.

There's no evidence to show that anyone in North Korea has received a COVID vaccine. Image credit: Alexander Khitrov/

Faced with skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and a lack of vaccines, North Korea is turning to traditional medicine, home remedies, and antibiotics to deal with the virus. 

Rodong Sinmun, a state-owned newspaper in North Korea, has reportedly advised people with mild COVID-19 symptoms to treat themselves with willow or honeysuckle tea three times a day. Hot drinks may ease some symptoms such as sore throat, but they can't be considered an effective treatment for COVID-19. 


State media has also encouraged patients to gargle saltwater and take antibiotics to combat the disease, Reuters reports. Since COVID-19 is caused by a virus, not bacteria, taking antibiotics will have no direct impact on the infection.

Daily newspaper reports have boasted how the military has been deployed to help distribute medicines across the country, but it’s unclear what drugs these are.  

"Pharmaceutical factories [...] and medical appliances factories across the country have increased their production by directing efforts to the production of medicines and medical supplies in urgent need in keeping with the maximum emergency epidemic prevention situation," says one Rodong Sinmun article about North Korea's COVID response.

Kim Jong-un previously claimed the country had not recorded a single case of COVID-19 throughout 2020 and 2021 because they took the decision to shut their borders at the start of the pandemic.


State authorities only publicly announced the first cases on May 12, saying the outbreak emerged in April. However, some outside observers have suspected COVID-19 cases have been present in the country for some time. 

Documented case numbers have risen dramatically in less than a month. As of May 19, the total number of persons with fever is over 2,241,610, of which at least 754,810 are under medical care, according to Rodong Simnun. The current death toll is reported as 65. It's thought that North Korea reports their COVID-19 cases simply as a "fever" because the country doesn't have widespread testing. 

There's no evidence to show that anyone in the country has received a COVID-19 vaccine, making this recent outbreak all the more concerning. North Korea was offered millions of doses of AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines through the World Health Organization's (WHO) COVAX program, but it rejected them. Following the recent outbreak, the WHO has since said the offer is still on the table and they've even developed a vaccine deployment plan for the country. 

"It is vital that the government acts now to protect the right to health of one of the world’s populations with lowest access to vaccines and one of its most fragile health systems. That means providing access to vaccines without discrimination and guaranteeing a transparent vaccine distribution plan which is subject to public scrutiny," Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher Boram Jang said in a statement last week. 


"The North Korean government should immediately establish plans to secure Covid-19 vaccines for its population by cooperating with the international community," continued Jang. 

If the situation fails to resolve soon, many fear the country could see a crisis on par with the brutal famine in the 1990s.


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