I Had A Scary Encounter With North Korea’s Crumbling Healthcare System

Benjamin Mack north korea

Benjamin Mack

Benjamin Mack poses with a North Korean soldier.

I saw North Korea’s scandalous medical complement first-hand when we got ill on a new outing to a brute state. Although they took good caring of me, I’m blissful that we was a Westerner and that we was not sicker.

Once well-respected, North Korea’s health infrastructure is “crumbling” and “in apocalyptic need of help,” according to Amnesty International. The nation spent less on medical per capita than any other country in 2009  — underneath US$1 — according to a World Health Organization. Meanwhile, pervasive gauntness has led to a illness epidemic, while tot mankind rates are apart aloft than adjacent South Korea, among other health crises.

The North Korean supervision denies there’s a problem, instead repeating groundless claims about providing free, state-of-the-art caring for all of a 25 million people.

Getting Sick

My confront with a complement came toward a finish of my eight-day revisit in Jun 2013, when we was roving by farming North Korea underneath a guise of a tourist, not vouchsafing on to etiquette agents that we was a journalist.

I was during a hotel on a corner of Kyongsong when we jolted watchful with a misfortune stomach cramp I’d ever experienced. Next came a chills, so narcotic we threw on my thickest jacket, a sweater, and dual some-more shirts underneath that. It was roughly 70 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Severe headaches followed and afterwards diarrhea that wouldn’t stop.

north korea hotel

Raymond Cunningham

The Seaman’s Bar in Chongjin.

I was rushed to a informal collateral of Chongjin, about half an hour divided by car, where we was ushered by several people into a tiny room during a behind of a place called a Seamen’s Bar, which, yes, serves as both bar and medical facility. Forced to distortion down, we was bending adult to an IV tube. Needles have always shocked me, yet we was even some-more fearful given we didn’t know what was happening. Eventually, a overflow of doctors and nurses left me alone with a singular nurse, who kneaded my sweaty forehead. Somehow we fell asleep. 

Waking several hours later, a initial thing we beheld was that everybody was gone, save for a large male in his early 40s whose floppy black hair was a really thing a open use debate “Let’s trim a hair in suitability with a revolutionary lifestyle” warned against. My conduct was still spinning as a helper came in carrying a tray of sweltering tea and porridge. we simulated to make an bid to splash and eat before fibbing behind down,

north korea hospital

Raymond Cunningham

When we woke again, we was feeling improved and forced myself to eat and splash some of a now-cold tea and porridge. Before prolonged a Korean beam and unfamiliar debate manager of a debate organisation I’d embedded myself with re-entered, both lucent and apparently relieved that we was recovering. But we had to leave as shortly as possible, they said. Told to splash lots of water, eat tainted dishes and to take it easy as a IV was finally private from my arm, we bent in honour to appreciate a medical staff as we stumbled out of a Seamen’s Bar and was ushered into a watchful minibus.

[Editor’s note: Ben’s comment of removing ill was reliable by another chairman on his trip, Ray Cunningham, a photographer, techer on North Korean history, and executive of annals services during University of Illinois during Urbana-Champaign.]

Though a diarrhea would final for a few some-more days, we would not need another IV treatment. we was out of North Korea 3 days later, drifting from Yanji, China to Beijing before stability on to Berlin. Once behind home, we visited a alloy to see if we indispensable any follow-up treatment. we had listened a word “dysentery” frequently while we was ill in North Korea. The alloy pronounced yet it was probable that was what we had been cheerless with, given we was maintaining fluids again, we did not need follow-up treatment.

I survived removing ill in North Korea, yet what about people who live there year round?

A Crumbling System

Dysentery might seem like a apart memory in a grown world, yet in North Korea, where medical reserve are wanting and efficient doctors even scarcer, a illness noted by serious diarrhea and a detriment of fluids is a really genuine open health problem.

north korea hospital

Raymond Cunningham

“The existence is simple medical is really tough to obtain,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, executive executive of a U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “Shortages of medicine and blood supplies, generally in farming areas, has not helped.”

Another large problem is corruption.

“Doctors are now mostly charging for their services, and people are removing incited divided if they can’t pay,” says Scarlatoiu.

At one point, North Korea’s medical complement was deliberate laudable. The nation had set adult an army of domicile doctors, any obliged for simple health within internal communities. Child immunization campaigns and graduation of healthy habits led to a complement that in a 1960s boasted some-more sanatorium beds and a reduce tot mankind rate than South Korea.

Over time, however, North Korea suffered from a low economy and augmenting isolation, particularly following a tumble of a Soviet Union and serious sanctions from a West, and now a normal North Korean can design to live a decade reduction than their southern neighbors.

Exactly how bad things are is tough to say.

north korea hospital

Raymond Cunningham

Amnesty’s offensive report, that described hospitals where hypodermic needles were not sterilized and sheets were not frequently washed, was criticized by a WHO for relying wholly on statements from people who were not in a country. Conversely, when WHO Director-General Margaret Chan visited North Korea in Apr 2010, she called a health complement the enviousness of a building world.

At slightest medical training for doctors and nurses is deliberate adequate by general standards, according to Francis Markus, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies orator for East Asia. “The DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] doctors and nurses with whom we have hit are dedicated and learned professionals within their context,” he says. “But ongoing training of doctors and nurses is an critical member of a health program, given clearly they can advantage from updated believe and techniques that are not indispensably accessible within a DPRK context.”

The problem is that foreigners, even ill ones like myself, generally usually see a delicately orchestrated chronicle of North Korean healthcare.

When AP reporters visited Pyongyang’s presumably worldly new maternity sanatorium in Feb 2009, they couldn’t assistance yet notice that it was frigidly cold inside, with patients wearing gloves, coats, and scarves during exams and nurses wearing relating white sleet pants and jackets. Meanwhile, notwithstanding a participation of high-tech apparatus like Siemens scanners, there were ’70s-era phones and other superannuated apparatus that seemed to date to when a Soviet Union was a country’s categorical supplier. And if such a high-profile sanatorium was struggling, afterwards how bad would things be in a rest of a country?

North Korea, of course, denies any letdown.

north korea hospital

Raymond Cunningham

A beforehand baby lies in an incubator during a Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

“Under a surpassing amatory caring of General Secretary Kim Jong-Il a sanatorium has a well-regulated complement whereby women in childbed are supposing with furious sugar and influential medicines by a state giveaway of charge,” writes a state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in a 2009 news on a hospital, adding that it is “An idol of socialism as it translates a pleasing dream of tellurian beings into a reality.”

The news also claims that over 6 million women have given birth during a hospital, including some-more than 7,000 foreigners. The series has not been exclusively verified.

A some-more poignant series is North Korea’s tot mankind rate, that stays startlingly high during 24.5 deaths per 1,000, scarcely 4 times as high as a U.S. and some-more than 6 times aloft than South Korea, according to a CIA World Factbook. 

A serve 25% of children underneath a age of 5 suffered from ongoing gauntness in 2012, according to a National Nutrition Survey of North Korea, a news corroborated by UNICEF, a World Food Program, and World Health Organization. The news combined scarcely one in 3 women were anemic.


Benjamin Mack

B-side ambulances in Pyongyang.

More justification of a struggling health complement can be seen on a streets of Pyongyang, where ambulances might be retrofitted white vans with lights mounted on top. Occasionally blank hubcaps, gas tanks on a vehicles might be sealed with a pivotal to forestall fuel from being stolen. And even these vehicles are formidable to mark in North Hamgyong Province cities such as Hoeryong.

Some North Korean officials seem to commend a medical hurdles confronting their country and to be open to general assistance, public health experts Espen Bjertness and Ahmed Ali Madar of a University of Oslo resolved in an Apr essay in The Lancet. But, they add, “Several general organizations have been intent in North Korea for many years, and still there are grave, implicitly unacceptable, health inequities in a country.”

Meanwhile, a medical complement clings to propaganda.

It is not sparse for Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to revisit medical facilities, charity on-the-spot “guidance” for improving care. In May, only days after a supervision apologized for a fall of a Pyongyang unit building that might have killed hundreds, Kim and mother Ri Sol Ju visited a Taesongsan General Hospital in Pyongyang. Photos of Kim walking by brightly illuminated halls in a white medical cloak filled a newspapers, that also showed healthy-looking children energetically sticking to a leader’s arms, accompanied by equally joyful doctors, nurses, and group in troops uniforms. According to a KCNA report, Kim’s “Eyes shone with tears when he lulled them sticking to his sleeves, demure to partial with him.”

kim jong un hospital


Kim Jong-un’s latest sanatorium propaganda.

Ben Mack is an American publisher formed in Berlin, Germany. A 2012 connoisseur of Boise State University, he has created for outlets including Deutsche Welle, Air India Magazine, The Local Sweden and The Hillsboro Argus. You can follow him on Twitter @benaroundearth or check out his blog at Ben Around Earth.

Check out some-more of Ben’s clandestine travels inside a Hermit Kingdom

Categories Healthcare