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North Korean officials favor South Korean sleeping pills to handle the pressures of work

Airman 1st Class Skyler Kieran, 20th Medical Support Squadron pharmacy technician, fills a bottle of medication in order to fill a customer’s prescription August 5, 2010. (U.S. Air Force/Released)
August 25, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean officials stressed by the pressures of overwork are turning for relief to sleeping pills made in rival South Korea, often asking travelers to China for help in obtaining them, sources in the reclusive, nuclear-armed country say.

The pills made in the South have fewer side effects than medicines more commonly available, and are therefore highly prized, one high-ranking official in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service this week.

“South Korean sleeping pills are known to have fewer side effects than Diazepam or the Chinese-made sleeping pills that are widely used in North Korea,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some high-ranking officials are desperate to get South Korean sleeping pills these days, and they ask trade officials and private travelers leaving for China to get them for them,” RFA’s source said, adding that the families of defectors who have settled in the South are often also approached for help.

A growing number of officials now turn to pills to help handle the demands of their work on projects like the building of the Samjiyon “model county” in Ryanggang province and the construction of a large power plant in South Hamgyong’s Tanchon city, the source said.

“In fact, the phenomenon of high-ranking officials’ dependence on sleeping pills has not just suddenly emerged,” the source said.

“Ever since [national leader] Kim Jong Un took power, more senior officials have been unable to sleep because of the psychological pressure from random inspections, excessive punishments, and impossible workloads,” he said.

Defectors’ families asked

Also speaking to RFA, a source in neighboring South Hamgyong agreed, saying, “More and more people here in North Korea are looking for South Korean sleeping pills.”

“There are many sleeping pills available in the local markets, but the South Korean pills are more popular as they are known to have fewer side effects than the pills made in China,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“The best way to get South Korean sleeping pills is to ask for them from the families of North Korean defectors currently living in the South,” the source said. “However, it is said that most treatments found in South Korea are not available even to the defectors, as they can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription.”

The fact that so many high-ranking officials are looking for sleeping pills demonstrates the severity of the work assignments and demands being made by the Central Committee of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, the source said.

“Some officials also deal with these pressures by taking ice [a powerful methamphetamine], and often suffer from drug addiction,” he said.

Medicines including painkillers and fever-reducing drugs brought into North Korea by the Red Cross and other international NGOs have become harder to obtain in recent years as U.N. sanctions punishing North Korea for its illicit nuclear weapons program have taken hold, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

Medicines are excluded from U.N. sanctions, but some NGOs have stopped supplying medicines to North Korea due to a lack of transparency in their distribution, while others have experienced difficulties in purchasing and delivering medicines because of sanctions restricting money flows, sources say.