To research healthcare in North Korea is to perform a balancing act with government information, witness testimonies and internationally funded research. While the North Korean government provides free healthcare under the socialist government that Kim Il Sung implemented, famine, lack of resources and lack of education make this socialist paradise seem like a distant dream to most North Koreans.
According to multiple North Korean refugees, the free healthcare policy applies only to the uppermost classes living in Pyongyang. These people are the ones that the Kim dynasty hand-picked as its favorites. These citizens come from long lineages of people devoted to the socialist regime, and as a reward, they receive the benefit of free healthcare. The majority of North Korean citizens, however, have to pay not only for medical procedures but also have to supply medical instruments and medications needed for most procedures. Most hospitals have no heating or electricity.
Although other countries and international organizations provide aid to North Korea, much of the medical supplies they provide end up in the hands of merchants who sell them for inflated prices. Many North Koreans bypass hospitals altogether and instead buy medical advice from street vendors in the markets. For many, this is often cheaper and safer than going to a hospital.
Because state-run hospitals are so expensive and unreliable, many North Koreans turn to doctors and surgeons who practice illegally and discreetly in their own homes. These doctors provide resources, expertise and convenience not found in government hospitals.
The state of free healthcare in North Korea took a heavy blow when famines ravaged the country throughout the 1990s. Since then, the country has become increasingly accepting of international aid and advice. Officials in the Ministry of Public Health and at Kim Il Sung University are beginning to admit the country’s health challenges to the outside world. A study that the United Nations conducted in 2019 estimated that over 43% of North Koreans suffer from malnourishment. Another study that North Korea’s Ministry of Public Health conducted showed that the prevalence of tuberculosis has been increasing for the past 25 years. In 2016, estimates determined that 640 per 100,000 people suffer from tuberculosis. Luckily, some nonprofits are attempting to improve healthcare in North Korea. Here are three organizations working to provide sustainable medical aid and healthcare to North Korea.
- Amnesty International conducted research into the healthcare system in North Korea in 2010. It found that North Korea spent less than $1 per person per year on healthcare, less than any other country in the world. Amnesty International continues to urge countries to increase aid to North Korea based on need rather than political considerations.
- UNICEF’s work with the North Korean healthcare system divides into three sections: health, nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene. It has implemented the Integrated Management of Newborn Illnesses (IMNIC) program in 50 counties, providing the residents with medicine kits and training 5,000 doctors per county to provide basic curative services. UNICEF has also partnered with the North Korean Ministry of Public Health to treat severely and acutely malnourished children.
- The Gavi Vaccine Alliance has provided North Korea with more than $12 million in aid. It focusses primarily on strengthening the existing healthcare system and providing vaccines and equipment to local facilities. Because of these vaccinations, there have been no reported cases of measles in North Korea since April 2007. Together, Gavi and UNICEF have provided equipment transport vehicles for every county in the country.
Healthcare in North Korea is far from being free and accessible to everyone. However, by being open with the outside world about the dire nature of their health challenges and allowing international aid, North Korea has taken the first few steps to create a brighter future for the health of its people.
– Caroline Warrick-Schkolnik
Photo: Wikimedia Commons