Viagra in North Korea? No Thanks

Sex and Contraceptives: Why North Korea Doesn't Want To Import Viagra
January 29th, 2013
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Ever wondered how sex, contraception, and dealing with impotence works in North Korea? Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who spent seven years living in the country, knows the answer.

Having helped manage one of North Korea’s leading pharmaceutical brands during his time living there, Abt’s professional experiences showed him an aspect of life few foreigners will ever come into contact with. Working to establish one of the first international class production lines in the DPRK, his company opened a number of pharmacies around the country that introduced consumers to non-generic drugs for the first time. Through that work Abt learnt much about the way that DPRK society works on a multitude of levels and reveals all in his new book entitled, “A Capitalist in North Korea”.

In the first of several excerpts to be published from his new book, NK NEWS brings you Abt’s account of sex, contraception, and viagra in North Korea.


Unlike most so-called developing countries, North Korea is home to an aging population, because women are having on average 2.02 babies—barely enough to sustain the population numbers, according to a 2010 report by Statistics Korea. The demographic is in part because most young couples bear one child. The government, in response, has taken a pragmatic response to population growth rather than a Leninist one: it urges families to have more children, and discourages abortions and even contraceptives even though they are legal.

North Korean women often use contraceptive coils, or small plastic devices inserted into the womb. Men get condoms from friends who bring them back from abroad. When I was running the pharmaceutical company I wanted to import and distribute condoms and other contraceptives, hoping they would be a commercial success. But the government didn’t hand over a permit because it needed more babies, not less.

My company also looked into selling Viagra and Cialis, products also popular with Korean men. The government wouldn’t mind, I thought, as these aphrodisiacs would get couples heated up and create more kids. I was quickly proven wrong when denied the permit. Ms. Thak, a pharmacist, revealed the reasons to me: “The result of the higher sexual appetite of men would not have led to more children but to more abortions,” she claimed.

In 2007, I was approached by the North Korean inventor of a drug he called “Natural Viagra,” a gimmicky mixture of herbs. He asked me to market it within North Korea and abroad and gave me samples. I passed them on to some friends who were using the original version of Viagra, who concluded that Viagra and Cialis offered better results. Still, the North Korean government admitted Natural Viagra for sales, and now I understand its reasoning. We would not sell this as I was keen on building the reputation of the pharmaceutical company.

North Koreans are, in fact, human beings, and like all other humans, they do have a sense of humor and sometimes tell dirty jokes. Some of these jokes were about husbands and wives who had extramarital affairs that made listeners, including myself, laugh. “When does a wife know that her husband is cheating on her? When he starts complaining about the lack of water as he wants to have two showers a week.” This was one of the many popular jokes.

With this, it was implicitly acknowledged that marital unfaithfulness was not an absolute taboo, even if it was frowned upon. In fact, I knew two Korean couples who had extramarital affairs.

Does prostitution exist in North Korea? Officially, no. It is illegal and subject to severe punishment, such as a “corrective” year-long stay in a labor camp. Street prostitution is too visible and too risky. Still, some North Korean men can afford an occasional day of massage and sauna. Often over lunch or after workI heard men gossiping about which women in the parlors offered better “services” than others. Of course, that’s with the caveat that the statement leaves much room for interpretation.

By offering discreet services, women can dole in a lot of money by North Korean standards, sometimes out of the sheer necessity to support their families. And for all the moralistic ideology, sex work isn’t a completely absent phenomenon. Indeed, some “flowers of the nation” may now be for sale, as I understood the half-joking remarks of men who said they were seeking to buy the pejorative “beautiful flowers.” While marketization is about to lead to more prosperity in North Korea, sex may also become just another tradable product.

On the other hand, ever since women have overwhelmingly become family breadwinners, some female traders have increasingly had to take journeys away from their husbands that lasted weeks. They told me that sometimes these women have boyfriends and lovers who they financially support on the side. In that way, North Korean women aren’t much different than some of their counterparts from around the world!

***

To find out more about Felix Abt’s new book, “A Capitalist in North Korea“, visit his website or make a purchase directly from Amazon here. Find Felix on Twitter @felixabt

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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