- By Clare SestanovichClare Sestanovich and Sylvie Stein are researchers at Foreign Policy.
Given how stubbornly Kim Jong-Il appears to be weathering his reportedly grave illness, you might think North Korean healthcare is more or less intact — even the Dear Leader must get a boost from modern medicine. But a chilling report released today by Amnesty International is an all-too-clear reminder that the luxuries (or in this case, just the bare necessities) of royal treatment in Korea are a far cry from the horrors of everyday existence: based on the accounts of 40 North Korean defectors and health professionals, Amnesty investigators reveal just how backward the country’s healthcare system truly is.
Drained of the most basic — and most important — resources (everything from pills to power), hospitals in North Korea are barely functional. Doctors make their rounds by candlelight, and patients endure major operations without even the mildest anesthesia. And that’s only if the ailing can make it to a hospital in the first place: many patients must make many-hour treks to consult with their inept doctors — appointments that invariably spell further trauma. One interviewee describes his harrowing amputation (anesthesia-free, of course):
Five medical assistants held my arms and legs down to keep me from moving. I was in so much pain that I screamed and eventually fainted from pain," said the man, identified only by his family name, Hwang. "I woke up one week later in a hospital bed.
Under North Korea’s official health care program, all citizens are entitled to free medical treatment — and state officials insist they truly receive it. Yet World Health Organization figures give the country a failing grade: North Korea spends less than one dollar per person per year on health — a meager sum that makes it the world’s worst performer. First-person accounts in the report only confirm this picture. According to one defector and former doctor:
People in North Korea don’t bother going to the hospital if they don’t have money because everyone knows that you have to pay for service and treatment.
Without the right bribes – cigarettes, alcohol, or just plain cash — most Koreans don’t stand a chance. In short, says the doctor: "If you don’t have money, you die.”