TOKYO — North Korea has made some wacky claims over the years — like the one about discovering unicorns and the photos showing Kim Jong Un at the top of a snow-capped Mount Paekdu, which would have you believe he apparently climbed in dress shoes. And don’t forget that time his father, Kim Jong Il, reportedly hit five holes-in-one the first time he played golf.
But Friday’s assertion that a North Korean pharmaceutical company has trumped global science and come up with a vaccine for MERS has got to be right up there.
The official Korean Central News Agency — not considered among the world’s most trustworthy news sources — announced Friday that the Pugang Pharmaceutical Company had developed "Kumdang-2," a vaccine made from extracts from ginseng grown in rare earth elements.
The injection is “highly effective in preventing and curing the MERS virus and other contagious diseases,” the Pyongyang-based agency claimed. It even published a photo of the medicine, which comes in glass vials in a gold box, the kind that ginseng tea is sold in in North Korea.
"As a strong immune-activator, the injection has been recognized to prevent different malignant epidemics," it quoted Jon Sung-hun, a doctor and director of the pharmaceutical company, as saying.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a zoonotic virus that passed from camels to humans and was first seen in Saudi Arabia three years ago, has killed 24 people in South Korea since an outbreak began last month. There's no known cure or treatment for the virus, despite the best efforts of international science.
North Korea — which shut its borders for four months amid concerns about Ebola, happening half a world away — has been clearly concerned about MERS and checking temperatures at an inter-Korean industrial park on the northern side of the border.
But, surprisingly, it had not imposed the kind of blanket quarantine seen during the Ebola pandemic.
Perhaps we now know why.
People who had been injected with Kumdang-2 (the name means “golden sugar” in Korean, thought it's not clear what Kumdang-1 treated) had not contracted any infectious diseases, even as they had traveled to the areas hit by those diseases, KCNA reported.
"This means that Kumdang-2 is effective in coping with the MERS virus," it said.
North Korea had previously touted its golden concoction in 2003, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome hit Asia, and a few years later amid outbreaks of avian flu, the South’s Yonhap News Agency.
The medicine even has its own Web site, available in English and Russian, declaring: “Everyone has the right to be healthy!"
The Web site makes for some fun reading.
Under “Dosing and treatment course,” the North Koreans recommend using one or two ampoules on the first day and then gradually increasing the dosage.
After two days of injections, most people will “feel strong, refreshed and happy,” although “some patients may feel that their diseased parts are stimulated to a small extent,” the website says.
The Web site warns that a few patients (“less than 0.001 % of the total”) will feel “heavily stimulated at the diseased parts and/or experienced throbbing or stifled feelings at the heart.”
“Such feelings were found especially among feeble girls and weak elders,” it says. “They are not side effects, but signs of healing response. Therefore, you should not worry about them.”
Kumdang-2 can be used for an impressive array of illnesses, according to the Web site: from chilblains and diabetes to impotence and “spontaneous gangrene.”
Unfortunately for anyone convinced by such claims, the only place to buy this miracle medicine — outside of North Korea, that is — appears to be Russia. Under the “where to buy” tab is only a Moscow address and a Web site in Russian, which sells a variety of North Korean ginseng products.
As luck would have it, your correspondent met the boss of this North Korean company some years ago in Pyongyang, the very Dr. Jon quoted in the KCNA report.
I was a correspondent for the Financial Times, making my second visit to Pyongyang in 2006, when I asked if I could met Jon, the president of Pugang Corp, a North Korean conglomerate — in the mold of the Southern megaliths like Samsung and Hyundai — that was involved in businesses as diverse as mining, motorbikes and pharmaceuticals.
Much to my surprise, Jon agreed to meet me and we talked business over cups of tea — yes, ginseng tea — in the coffee shop of the Potonggang hotel in central Pyongyang.
Pugang was among the North Korean companies whose assets had been frozen under U.S. financial sanctions.
But it was finding ways around the sanctions, he told me at the time.
Its best-selling product at that time was a blood purifier derived from soy beans called "royal blood fresh" and was being marketed as an effective prevention against deep-vein thrombosis.
Pugang was exporting the product in boxes saying only "Made in Korea" and sending it through third countries to far-flung markets including, he said, to the United States.
Jon — a rotund man who spoke perfect English, the result of growing up in Tanzania, he said — told me that North Korean companies were still able to export and were finding new banking channels to evade the American sanctions, imposed for alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.
"It is true we are having great difficulties, but they cannot kill us," he said.
Friday’s assertions show that Pugang is at least still alive, if not kicking. Perhaps there’s something to the Kumdang-2 after all?