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Report Details Dire State of North Korea's Health Care System

A new report on the state of health care in North Korea says the sick are inadequately treated because hospitals are barely functioning. The report also blames widespread malnutrition for outbreaks of disease.

Amnesty International paints a dire portrait of North Korea's health system in its new report, released Thursday. The rights group contends the state fails to provide even the most basic health and survival needs for its people.

"Supplies, such as syringes are used and re-used, sometimes with very little care for hygiene," said Norma Kang Muico, an Amnesty International researcher. "And there's such a shortage of medicines that surgeries are often performed without the aid of anesthesia or not enough anesthesia to control the pain."

The organization says its information comes from health professionals who work in the reclusive country and 40 North Koreans now living abroad. The interviewees reported malnutrition has caused chronic health problems, with the hungry resorting to eating grass, roots and tree bark. The report also says that tuberculosis has made a comeback in the country.

North Korea's government says health care is free. But the Amnesty International report says in reality citizens have been paying for medical tests and surgeries since the 1990's. Doctors expect to receive cigarettes, alcohol or food for consultations.

The World Health Organization says North Korea spends the least on health care compared with any other country - less than one dollar per person annually.

The communist North Korean government controls most aspects of the economy. But a combination of mismanagement, natural disasters and the loss of support from former communist states has pushed the economy to near collapse. Pyongyang has relied on foreign aid for more than a decade to feed its people.

Amnesty International says the grave situation in North Korea means it is crucial that donor countries not make aid decisions based on political considerations. The group contends that for North Korea's public health infrastructure to improve it will need substantially greater international assistance.

Amnesty International researcher Muico acknowledges that many donors worry that their contributions to North Korea do not reach those most in need.

"The better and more effective way to address this concern is not to refuse [to give] humanitarian aid but to give to the relevant U.N. agencies and other humanitarian organizations working on the ground and to support them in their efforts to gain greater access and to obtain more robust monitoring of the delivery of the aid," she said.

The organization says under North Korea's international commitments, it is required to provide adequate food and health care to its population and to seek outside assistance if it cannot meet those needs on its own.