North Korea’s continued pursuit of a ballistic nuclear weapon program, along with the UN security council-imposed sanctions it faces, regularly dominates the headlines. This often reduces the focus on the millions of citizens, living in Pyongyang and other neighboring cities, facing a huge humanitarian and health crisis.
The humanitarian and health crisis in North Korea existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. Unfortunately, North Koreans are no stranger to famine having endured a period of mass starvation and economic crisis between 1994 & 1998 known as the ‘Arduous March’ or the ‘March of suffering’. Estimates vary hugely but between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans died of starvation and malnutrition due to a number of factors including economic mismanagement and poor decision making from the regime. More recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic with immediate border closures, preventing the import of food and medicine which has further intensified the current crisis. An increased number of citizens begging for food, a rise in homelessness and desperate need for antibiotics and medicine puts the North Korean economy on the brink of recession according to Jiro Ishimaru from Asia Press.
Pyongyang and Beijing
Beijing has been North Korea’s closest foreign ally since the fall of the Soviet Union, with China often accused by other UN member states of stalling and persistently discrediting the accusations of the DPRK’s continued efforts to violate UN Security Council resolutions. However, the DPRK’s trade with China shrank by approximately 80% in 2020 after the nation sealed its borders.
Not only has the pandemic disrupted the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, recent reports of a high level North Korean official dying after being given a Chinese-made injection has strained the relationship further. Kim Jong Un reportedly became very angry after learning about the incident and has banned the use of all Chinese medicines at major hospitals in Pyongyang, including Chinese made COVID-19 vaccines.
This isn’t the first time that the regime has had to adopt this extreme stance, in 2005 the government demanded a directed crackdown to try and eradicate the illegal medical practices of retired DPRK doctors using medicine and equipment smuggled from China. Orders were given to each municipal and provincial procurator office to “eradicate private doctors” and to “actively control profit-making anti-socialistic activities by the doctors who must care for the people’s health”.
Healthcare in the DPRK and abroad
Pyongyang Papers have reported before on the failing healthcare system in the DPRK. Despite their claims of offering free national medical service and health insurance to all citizens, many defectors and refugees have revealed that this in fact only applies to the uppermost classes citizens who often come from a long lineage of people devoted to the socialist regime.
The majority of citizens instead must pay for medical procedures along with the equipment and medications needed alongside it. Due to the fact state-run hospitals are so expensive and unreliable, many North Korean’s instead turn to the cheaper option of doctors and surgeons who practice illegally and discreetly in their own homes.
Death by dangerous practice
Although the uppermost class may receive free healthcare, the standard of medical practice received from DPRK doctors is poor. Unfortunately, the death of a high-level North Korean mentioned above is not the first of its kind. There have been other reports of death caused by North Korean doctors practicing medicine illegally both in the DPRK and abroad.
Even though the North Korean health care system may be crumbling due to a lack or resources including medicines and basic medical equipment, this does not stop the regime from sending North Korean doctors overseas to generate much needed income to aid its ballistic nuclear weapons program. One of the countries that has North Korean doctors present is the Republic of Congo.
Information has been forwarded to Pyongyang Papers from a contact within the Republic of Congo that two DPRK doctors have been arrested and charged with illegal practice of medicine and manslaughter. The contact informed us that the Doctors were from Korea Moranbong Medical Cooperation Centre (Moranbong) and working in the Republic of Congo. A Republic of Congo based representative has so far failed to get the two doctors released.
The fate of the doctors is yet to be determined- but the future of the DPRK’s economy, humanitarian and healthcare crisis looks bleak as the regime continues to prioritize its own aims ahead of the needs of North Korean citizens wo continue to suffer.
If you have any information on illicit DPRK activity, please get in touch.