Health of North Korean Refugees

When defectors from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea risk their lives to leave the country, they are running not only from a dictatorial regime, but also from famine and sickness. The physical and mental health of North Korean refugees is much worse than that of their South Korean counterparts. But, upon reaching South Korea, North Korean defectors discover healthcare and resources that transform their well-being.

Nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees have managed to enter South Korea. These individuals suffer from both physical and mental illness. Depression and PTSD are prevalent issues experienced by North Korean refugees, who have spent their lives in a stressful environment of oppression.

Despite the fact that North Korea offers a universal socialist healthcare system, economic strife renders that system ineffective. Much of North Korea’s medical equipment is outdated, and many doctors sell medicine on the black market in order to pay for food. A recent study showed that approximately 40% of North Korean refugees who needed care while in North Korea were unable to receive it.

In South Korea, with access to reliable healthcare, the health of North Korean refugees is finally managed properly. On average, North Korean defectors visit the doctor twice a month.

The most common disorder suffered by North Korean refugees is malnutrition and stunted growth. Unlike the rest of the world, including South Korea, North Korea’s malnourished citizens have not experienced an increase in height over the past few decades. Even when exposed to the boundless diet available in South Korea, North Korean refugees continue to exhibit smaller statures than South Koreans, due to long-term damage caused by malnutrition.

Malnutrition has the most severe consequences for children. North Korean children exhibit stunted growth and anemia resulting from malnutrition. According to the World Health Organization, 25 out of 1,000 children in North Korea die before the age of five, as opposed to only three out of 1,000 in South Korea.

Concerned for North Korea’s suffering children, South Korea recently approved $8 million of aid, which will be divided between the U.N. World Food Programme and UNICEF to target illnesses in North Korean infants and mothers. Despite the benefits South Korea’s aid is expected to provide, any form of aid to North Korea is veiled in controversy because of its recent nuclear tests.

In 1952, South Korea became a recipient of U.S. aid. Following the Korean War, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. U.S. aid provided food and consumer goods, and within decades, South Korea became an aid donor. Today, such aid is desperately needed to supplement the lives of individuals living in North Korea.

Aid allowed South Korea to make an outstanding economic recovery and avoid the destitute fate of North Korea. South Korea has even become one of the foremost leaders in global health, which allows them to effectively improve the health of North Korean refugees who have relocated to the south.

Mary Efird

Photo: Flickr