Pearls, rhino horns and arsenic: Covid-hit North Koreans advised to turn to traditional medicine

Masho Lomashvili


After years with an official tally of zero cases, Covid has come to North Korea. The country has reported 168 confirmed cases, while cases of reported fever are nearing 2 million.

Most of these “fever” cases, experts say, are very likely Covid-19, but with low test supplies, medics are unable to confirm. What is clear, though, is that North Korea, an entirely unvaccinated country with very little capacity to contain the virus, is on the brink of Covid disaster.

The healthcare system is highly outdated and ill-equipped, while medicines are difficult to access.

Worst of all, North Korea is one of only two countries in the world with absolutely no vaccines. Last year, Kim Jong-Un rejected millions of doses offered by the WHO’s COVAX initiative. North Korea would fight Covid “in our own style,” the leader said.

That meant guards were issued shoot-to-kill orders along the hermit country’s border with China, while state media warned people that everything from snow, to birds, to trash in the ocean could carry COVID. Citizens were ordered inside on numerous occasions, supposedly to shelter from “dust storms from China” that the government feared could carry the virus. As we reported, state media also warned people to be extra vigilant against propaganda leaflets floating over the border with South Korea, claiming they could be “a possible route of transmission of the malicious virus.”

“Because they shielded the country itself, now they don’t have any supplies unless China secretly provided them,” said Dr. Sojin Lim, an Associate Professor in North Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire.

To Ethan Jewell, a Seoul-based correspondent for NK News, the rejection of COVAX jabs made little sense, as the party line generally promoted jabs as a viable way out of the pandemic. “State media described vaccines as effective against preventing serious illness or death,” he said. But none have materialized. 

So, how does North Korea plan to recover from this crisis? The government has been reviewing its options, Dr. Lim told me. The reality is that the Chinese Zero-Covid model, which has offered a blueprint for North Korea’s epidemic prevention strategy, is not an option for the country, which relies on food imports and international aid, and wouldn’t be able to cope with resulting food shortages.

North Korea’s main state-run outlet, Rodong Sinmun, has published official treatment advice for the virus. It advises people to take antibiotics, which are not effective in fighting the virus, as they treat bacterial infections. The newspaper also recommended dairy products and folk remedies like honeysuckle flowers and willow tree leaves. It also called for a medicine called angunguhwanghwan, a traditional North Korean concoction that contains pearls, rhino horn and gold leaf, as well as dangerous levels of mercury, lead and arsenic.

North Korea has a track record of developing scientifically unproven treatments, such as injections made from ginseng which it claimed could cure AIDS. Pushing bogus cures is a family trait in hermetic, isolated states. Just look at Turkmenistan, where last year the president was busy pushing licorice root as a potential cure for Covid.

While the government has announced that the military will be used to deliver supplies to people in the most need, Dr. Lim tells me the allocation of these scarce resources will likely be based on loyalty to the party — meaning that many North Koreans are likely to resort to alternative treatments. “For many, the only option is to find treatments from nature, which are not scientific and could be really dangerous.”


The World Health Organization has officially criticized China’s zero-Covid policy. It called on the Chinese Communist party to switch to a different, less crushing strategy for controlling the virus. News of the WHO’s criticism was then censored on Chinese social media. Meanwhile, reports are coming out of the prestigious Tsinghua and Peking Universities, where authorities have sealed off students with fences which have come to be known as a Covid-style “Berlin wall.” Over the weekend, hundreds of segregated Peking University students protested against the fences. The angry crowd entered a standoff with Covid workers, shouting “tear it down! Tear it down!” and applauding as part of the metal boundary clattered to the ground. Video of the protest shows Party secretary Chen Baojin appealing to the students to stop filming. “Classmates…please put down your mobile phones to protect Peking University,” he said.

The most effective vaccine communicators could be religious leaders. That’s according to an experiment that surveyed unvaccinated people in South Dakota, a state with a large proportion of evangelical Christians. They sent different groups of participants messages from religious leaders, politicians, and medical influencers, encouraging them to get vaccinated. Of the three messengers, only the religious ones succeeded in pushing people towards getting the shot. But as we know, religious leaders also have the power to pull people away from vital vaccines. You only have to look at the Awaken Church in San Diego, which has become a nexus of ultra-conservative, anti-vaccine influence whose followers have become “righteous fighters” against Covid restrictions, with its messianic leaders taking an extreme QAnon-centric line.

Anti-vaxxers are blaming vaccine side-effects on tennis star Rafael Nadal’s poor show at the Rome Masters tournament, claiming on Twitter that he’s a victim of Pfizer vaccine side’s effects. “Just look at Nadal, his career is over! Thank you Pfizer!” one tweet ran. “Nadal was very strong. But Pfizer was too strong,” said another. “Now you will have to stop your career…like so many other athletes vaccinated with this shit!” read a third. The claims may be a backlash waged by Novak Djokovic’s fans. When the Serbian player spurned vaccines rather than playing at the Australian Open last year, Nadal said his refusal “seems bit selfish to me,” leading to outcry from hardline Novak supporters.


Monkeypox is all over the news, and for it to happen in the middle of a pandemic feels cruel and unusual. Our knee-jerk response to this news is deeply influenced by what we’ve all experienced over the past three years. I’ll defer to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong to give you the measured, thoughtful take we all need. This new viral outbreak, he says, is testing whether we’ve learned anything at all from Covid.

Bill Gates is so over this pandemic. That’s the rather genius headline in WIRED for a brilliant interview by reporter Stephen Levy with the Microsoft billionaire at a conference in Vancouver last week, where attendees had to battle their way through picket lines of anti-vaccine QAnon protesters to get inside.