Friday, July 16, 2010

(UPDATED) North Korea's un-health care

Back in the 1990s, I recall a "60 Minutes" piece on Cuba's successful AIDS facilities, which essentially amounted to gilded cages where the inmates there received quality, state-of-the-art care but which they could never leave. Though there was definitely a communistic sense of do-it-our-way-or-else, there also seemed a genuine effort to help those afflicted with AIDS or otherwise infected with HIV to lead "healthy" lives.

I mention that because this one way of doing it stands in sharp contrast with the way its done in one of Havana's few remaining allies, North Korea. Amnesty International has released a scathing report on the state of medicine in the DPRK that lays bare circumstances you wouldn't wish even on a Pyongyang apologist [PDF version of report here].

From the Los Angeles Times:
North Korea's healthcare system is unable to provide sterilized needles, clean water, food and medicine, and patients are forced to undergo agonizing surgery without anesthesia, Amnesty International reported Thursday.

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The human rights group, citing World Health Organization statistics, found that North Korea spent under $1 per capita on healthcare, the lowest in the world. The global average was $716 per capita.

The collapse of the healthcare system compounds the misery of a population that is chronically malnourished and suffering from digestive problems caused by eating weeds, tree bark, roots, corn husks, cobs and other "substitute" foods.

The poor diet also weakens the immune system, making people susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis, which afflicts at least 5% of the population, according to the report. Meanwhile, about 45% of children under the age of 5 suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition.

"In view of the enormity of the food crisis in North Korea, health issues cannot be separated from the food insecurity that has gripped the country for almost two decades," the report stated. "The people of North Korea suffer significant deprivation in their enjoyment of the right to adequate healthcare, in large part due to failed or counterproductive government policies."
For those who (like me) express their disappointment or disdain for the UN's inability to effect positive political change in the various totalitarian regimes that still dot our planet, it's worth noting that the WHO and many other such agencies are the bread-and-butter of social and public policy, without which a great deal of good around the world would simply not be done.

I'm glad that they're paying attention to North Korea, which has so many social, medical, and educational problems brewing below the surface that it's almost unimaginable. This is a toxic waste dump of bad policy that is so egregious, it's no wonder that many people to the south, east, and west of the country have chosen to cordon off the place and then ignore it.

But in my own public health studies, I'm constantly made aware of the nature of the problems there — and the stark reality that there are too few groups and individuals willing or able to do anything about them. When/If the Pyongyang regime collapses, we will need boots on the ground to do a helluva lot of things to fix things up there, and I'm not always confident that there will be the understanding of the problem or the will to muster the resources to do something about it. I just hope by then I'll be in a position to be bring something to the table.

A second read of Joshua's take on this at One Free Korea prompts me to remark that I'm glad that this WHO report came out to deflate the saccharine take on North Korea's health care system by the WHO director herself, Margaret Chan.


  1. what is your public health experitise

  2. I'm trying to be adept in a number of fields, but my "expertise," when I get it, will likely be policy, along with population health. I'm interested in Korean American health issues, but also health care for international residents in Korea, from English teachers to migrant workers.


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