NORTH KOREA is in the grip of a famine-related crisis, and the worst affected are children and the aged. The health care system has virtually broken down. For many months now, hospitals have found it increasingly difficult to cope with the flood of patients. Essential medicines are in short supply, and no food is available for patients. North Korea has been scouring the world's markets for essential medicines. The unofficial economic embargo imposed on the country by the United States and the lack of international credit facilities have restricted North Korea's options in the purchase of competitively priced pharmaceutical products.
It was in such a situation that North Korea entered into a deal with Krebs Biochemicals, a Hyderabad-based company, for the supply of eight tonnes of ephederine. Ephederine is an essential ingredient of medicines used to treat coughs and colds. It is also used in the manufacture of the banned drug, methamephatimine. Most of East Asia's supply of methamephatimine is manufactured illegally on Thailand's border with Laos and Myanmar. The poor man's drug - as it is called because it is cheap - is now increasingly used by schoolchildren and university students.
There have been allegations that North Korea manufactures the drug illegally and smuggles it into the international market in order to generate desperately-needed foreign exchange. India's Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN) was aware of such stories. The CBN is the competent authority in the country to issue the "no objection" certificate (NOC) for the sale of chemicals such as ephederine.
When the initial application for the export of eight tonnes of ephederine was received, the CPN referred the matter to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in Vienna to confirm the legitimacy of the transaction. The INCB, after contacting the North Korean authorities, initially refused permission for the shipment on the grounds that the quantity involved was too large. The CBN, which made its own investigations, had some doubts about the intermediaries in the deal, but concluded that the manufacturing company and the importing country had nothing to hide. However, South Korea began lobbying to scuttle the deal: South Korea's representatives told the CNB as well as the INCB about their apprehension that North Korea would misuse the chemical. Both the INCB and the CBN did not find any basis for this hypothesis.
After further discussions with the INCB, the North Korean authorities scaled down their requirements to 2.5 tonnes and explained that owing to the floods and the famine, they were desperately in need of the ephederine consignment to make broncho-dilator medicines. The INCB notified their Indian counterparts in October 1997 that it had no objections to the export of 2.5 tonnes of ephederine to cover North Korea's requirements for 1998. The Indian manufacturer was told to dispense with the intermediaries and deal directly with the North Korean authorities. This condition was accepted, and in the third week of January, the Indian company submitted a revised application for the export of 2.5 tonnes of ephederine. The CNB issued the NOC.
However, the South Korean authorities had not given up. They kept pressuring Indian officials, including officials of other intelligence agencies, to scuttle the deal. Narcotics Commissioner R. Bhattacharji of the CBN was asked to request the INCB to reconsider its decision regarding the ephederine deal, which was beneficial to India. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which South Korea had obviously approached, sent a message to the CBN on January 30. It said: "It is learnt that Young Tu, Third Secretary, North Korean Embassy, New Delhi, had deposited a huge sum of money in an undisclosed branch of the State Bank of India. This amount is meant for the purchase of ephederine HCL from Krebs Biochemicals, Hyderabad, for the export of a banned drug called amphetamine. The consignment is likely to be shipped into Bangkok."
There was nothing mysterious either about the consignment or about the bank account. In fact, the Indian company had provided the CNB with details of the bank transaction.
The South Korean authorities had impressed upon the Food and Drug Administration of Thailand to seize the 2.5 tonnes of ephederine which had reached Bangkok on a flight from Chennai on January 27. The consignment was seized while being loaded on to a flight that was about to take off for Pyongyang. The NCB had anticipated such a development and had warned the INCB about its apprehensions before the consignment was dispatched.
INCB secretary Herbert Schaepe criticised the action of the Thai authorities. Thai media reports say that South Korean diplomats, along with U.S. and Japanese drug enforcement agents, were involved in the seizure of the consignment, which was meant for a debilitated country.
Pyongyang has demanded that the consignment be released immediately, pointing out that the INCB had approved it purchase. The INCB has informed the Thai authorities that the "rumours and speculation" about the consignment are unfounded. The INCB Secretary has pointed out that countries such as South Korea, China and the U.S. produce larger amounts of ephederine.
However, a senior official of the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand was quoted as saying that his agency has "no intention of releasing the shipment at the moment" and that investigations are continuing.
It is pointed out that the crisis in North Korea deserves a humanitarian response, and not the cloak-and-dagger tactics that have been adopted so far against the beleaguered country by South Korea, Japan and the U.S. As far as the pharmaceutical consignment from India is concerned, considerable precautions were taken to ensure that the consignment would be used strictly for genuine medical purposes. The INCB Secretary has already warned Pyongyang against any violation of trust in this regard.
South Korea's new President, Kim Dae Jung, has made improvement of relations with North Korea one of his priorities. His administration's approach to matters such as this pharmaceutical deal will be keenly watched now.