In Report, Grim View of North Korean Health Care


Reprinted from the New York Times

Published: July 15, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean doctors perform surgeries without anesthesia in clinics where hypodermic needles are not sterilized and sheets are not washed, the human rights group Amnesty International said in a report released on Thursday.


“Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving,” the report quoted a 24-year-old North Korean defector as saying, describing how his left leg was amputated without anesthesia after a train accident. “I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain.”

Other defectors told similarly horrific stories. One said her appendix was removed without anesthesia and her hands and feet were bound to prevent her from moving during the procedure. Others told of entire cities with no ambulances.

Drawn from interviews with more than 40 North Koreans who had defected over the past six years, as well as with health professionals who had worked with North Koreans, the report depicted a North Korean health system in dire straits.

Long cut off from most of the world, North Korea has been pushing its people even deeper into isolation. Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the North’s nuclear test last year and the North’s presumed role in the sinking of a South Korean warship in March have driven away potential aid donors. The government’s botched currency reform late last year also worsened chronic food shortages in the North.

“The North Korean people are in critical need of medical and food aid,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Asia-Pacific. “It is crucial that aid to North Korea is not used as a political football by donor countries.”

North Korea claims that it offers free medical service for all its people. But in reality, patients have had to pay their doctors with cash, cigarettes, alcohol and food since the 1990s, the 50-page report said.

“Many North Koreans bypass doctors altogether, going straight to the markets to buy medicine, self-medicating according to their own guesswork or the advice of market vendors,” it said. “The North Korean authorities recently banned a highly addictive narcotic painkiller that many North Koreans routinely used as a cure-all.”

North Korea spends less on health care than any other country in the world — less than $1 per person per year, according to the World Health Organization.

As some North Koreans resorted to eating grass, tree bark and roots, tuberculosis has made a comeback in North Korea, Amnesty International said.

For years, North Koreans fleeing their country have told of a deteriorating health care system, especially after the collapse of the economy in the mid-1990s.

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