Financial TimesFinancial Times

North Korean women pay a heavy price as Kim turns on 'black market breadwinners'

By Christian Davies

12 Jan 2022 · 9 min read

Seol Song-a remembers when she decided it was time to “buy myself a husband”. Born in the late 1960s, Seol grew up poor and hungry in the industrial city of Sunchon, north of Pyongyang. But after years working on a construction site, her life changed in the early 1990s when she started selling penicillin pilfered from the pharmaceuticals factory where her mother worked.

It was a time of rising demand for medicine: the country’s economy and state-directed food rationing system had collapsed in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union, leading to a famine that is believed to have killed millions of people. Armed with her mother’s expertise as a chemist, Seol started to produce medicines herself, hiring several employees and bribing public officials to protect her from arrest.

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