HIV/AIDS in North KoreaFor years, North Korean authorities have claimed that the country is free of AIDS/HIV. In an article published on December 1, 2015, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, confirmed that the country has not found a single case of AIDS/HIV infection, thanks to “the best medical system and people’s policy.” The article noted, “The country will continue to strengthen health supervision for HIV/AIDS prevention to protect the lives and health of the people.”

However, a team of researchers from North Korea and the United States did not believe the rhetoric of North Korea’s health authorities and conducted an independent study. Their findings show that there are currently about 8,400 HIV/AIDS in North Korea, with the first case having been detected in 1999. And the number of HIV/AIDS infections has been increasing dramatically over the past few years.

Unusual Trust

Science Magazine exclusively reports that this unusual collaborative investigation between North Korea and the United States began back in 2013. Taehoon Kim, one of the organization’s founders, said that starting in 2015, North Korea’s Center for Infectious Disease Control began documenting the spread of HIV and found that the number of people infected in the country had been climbing over the past decade. In September 2018, North Korea’s National AIDS Committee completed a questionnaire survey involving the entire country, a move that also illustrates the severity of the spread of HIV in the country. According to the North Korea National AIDS Committee, the main routes of HIV transmission in the country are blood donation and injection drug use.

“The Yellow Tide of Capitalism”

According to CNnews Chosun, as the North Korean regime’s ruling power continues to weaken and economic difficulties persist — the sex trade, drug abuse and human trafficking are spreading within the country. The North Korean regime calls these phenomena the “yellow tide of capitalism” and strictly controls them. However, according to the information available to South Korean intelligence agencies, the phenomenon has spread, centering on the border area between the two Koreas.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, drugs have spread throughout the country. The circulation is growing rapidly as drug factories have appeared in the Soonan area of Pyongyang and the city of Moonchon in Gangwon Province to earn foreign currency, and some residents are secretly involved in drug manufacturing.

A former resident of North Korea who is currently residing in South Korea said, “There is a ‘drug craze’ in North Korean society, including party cadres. Some wealthy people use drugs to lose weight, and residents use drugs when they have a stomach ache, catch a cold or are tired from work, making drugs a ‘cure-all’ in the country. This is often accompanied by the frequent emergence of the local sex trade, which has even been organized since around 2005. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of university students engaging in the sex trade, and high-ranking officials are receiving ‘services’ from those students.”

A Growing Problem

North Korean officials initially asked the U.S.-based DoDaum organization to keep the spread of HIV in the country a secret. But as the situation worsened, the partnership’s liaison, Taehoon Kim, the director for foreign relations at the North Korean Ministry of Health and a physician by training, finally broke his silence. He said, “Although reports that North Korea has a problem with HIV transmission may cause a backlash from the central government because they are all afraid of infectious diseases. But a cover-up and silence will only make the lack of treatment worse.”

Nonetheless, some reports suggest that the disease may be more prevalent than officially acknowledged, particularly among high-risk groups such as injection drug users and commercial sex workers. It is important to note that poverty and economic hardships have been significant challenges for the country’s population. The limited access to health care, lack of resources and overall economic difficulties could potentially hinder effective prevention, treatment and support for individuals living with HIV/AIDS in North Korea.

External Assistance

Since the mid-1990s, a number of non-profit and charitable NGOs have been active in North Korea. Although relatively limited in scope, their work has attracted the interest of U.S. policymakers because of the extreme isolation of the regime in Pyongyang. A number of US and international NGOs have provided assistance to the DPRK in areas such as humanitarian aid, development, health, informal diplomacy, science, communication and education. A relatively new trend is the growing number of NGOs, particularly in North Korea, which are run by or operate in conjunction with North Korean defectors.

In 2013, North Korean researchers approached DoDaum, a US-based non-profit organization that conducts health and education projects in the country and has agreed to help study the spread of HIV/AIDS in North Korea. However, according to Kim Tae-Hoon, co-founder of DoDaum, only 30-40% of the drugs used to treat the virus cross the border between China and North Korea due to strict international sanctions. Researchers are now calling on the international community to provide further assistance to North Korea to fight AIDS, including the provision of antiretroviral drugs to treat those infected and support for the rebuilding of the country’s health system.

– Jiayi Liu
Photo: Unsplash