PAJU, South Korea — As a medical student in North Korea, Lee Gwang-jin said he treated his fevers and other minor ailments with traditional herbal medicines. But a bad illness could mean trouble as hospitals in his rural hometown lacked the ambulances, beds, and even the electricity sometimes needed to treat critical or urgent patients.
Lee was therefore skeptical when he heard recent North Korean state media reports claiming that traditional medicine known as Koryo was playing a key role in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, which has killed millions of people. in the world.
“North Korea uses Koryo medicine a lot (for COVID-19)…but it’s not a safe cure,” said Lee, who studied Koryo medicine before fleeing North Korea in 2018 for a new living in South Korea. “Someone who is destined to survive will survive (with such drugs), but North Korea cannot help others who are dying.”
Like many other aspects of life in North Korea, the medicine that the state claims cures its sick is used as a political symbol. This, experts say, will ultimately allow the country to say that its leaders have overcome the epidemic, where other nations have repeatedly failed, by providing local remedies, independent of outside help.
As state media spin stories about the drug’s effectiveness and huge production efforts to make more of it, there are questions about whether people with serious illness are getting the treatment they need.
Defectors and experts believe that North Korea is mobilizing Koryo medicine simply because it does not have enough modern drugs to fight COVID-19.
“Treating mild symptoms with the drug Koryo is not a bad option. … But the coronavirus doesn’t just cause mild symptoms,” said Yi Junhyeok, a traditional physician and researcher at the Korean Institute of Oriental Medicine in South Korea. “When you think about critical and high-risk patients, North Korea needs vaccines, urgent care systems, and other medical resources that it can use to ‘reduce the death toll.’
More than two months have passed since North Korea admitted its first coronavirus outbreak, and the country has reported an average of 157 fever cases per day over the past seven days, a significant drop from the peak in around 400,000 per day in May. It also maintains a widely disputed claim that only 74 of the 4.8 million fever patients have died, a death rate of 0.002% that would be the lowest in the world if true.
Despite widespread doubt about the veracity of the statistics reported by North Korea, there is no indication that the epidemic has caused a disaster in North Korea. Some outside experts say the North may soon officially declare victory over COVID-19 in a bid to build internal unity. North Korea could then emphasize the role of Koryo medicine as a reason.
“North Korea calls Koryo medicine ‘juche (self-sufficient) medicine’, treats it importantly, and regards it as one of its political symbols,” said Kim Dongsu, a professor at the University’s College of Korean Medicine. Dongshin from South Korea. “North Korea does not have many academic and cultural achievements to report, so it will probably actively propagate Koryo medicine.”
North Korea officially incorporated Koryo medicine – named after an ancient Korean kingdom – into its public health system in the 1950s. Its importance has risen sharply since the mid-1990s, when North Korea began to suffer from a severe shortage of modern medicine during a crippling famine and economic turmoil that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Koryo medicine refers to herbal concoctions that sometimes include animal parts, acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, and meridian massage. These ancient remedies are also used in many Asian and Western countries. But while in these countries traditional and modern medicines operate independently, North Korea has combined them.
Medical students are required to study both modern medicine and traditional medicine in school, regardless of their specialization. Thus, once they become professional doctors, they can practice both. Every hospital in North Korea has a department of Koryo medicine. There are also medical-only Koryo hospitals.
Kim Jieun, a defector who is a traditional doctor in South Korea, said she majored in Koryo medicine at school in the North, but eventually worked as a pediatrician and internal medicine doctor. She said South Koreans generally use traditional medicine to maintain or improve their health, but North Koreans use it to treat various illnesses.
“In South Korea, patients with cerebral hemorrhage, hepatocirrhosis, liver cancer, ascites, diabetes and kidney infections do not come to traditional clinics. But in North Korea, traditional doctors treat them,” said Kim, who resettled in South Korea in 2002 and now works for Well Saem Korean Medicine Hospital in Seoul.
North Korea’s leading newspaper Rodong Sinmun recently published a series of articles praising herbal medicine and acupuncture for curing fever patients and reducing sequelae of COVID-19-related illnesses, including pain. abnormalities, heart and kidney problems, nausea and coughing.
The newspaper also published calls from leader Kim Jong Un to adopt Koryo medicine. According to other state media, the production of Koryo drugs has quadrupled since last year, while a large quantity of modern drugs has also been rapidly delivered to local medical institutions, a claim that cannot be verified. independent.
North Korea’s theoretically free socialist medical system remains in shambles, with defectors testifying that they had to buy their own medicine and pay doctors for surgeries and other treatment. They say North Korea’s advanced hospitals are largely concentrated in Pyongyang, the capital, where the ruling elite and upper-class citizens loyal to the Kim family live.
Lee, 29, who attended medical school in the northern North Korean city of Hyesan, said doctors in Koryo reused their acupuncture needles after sterilizing them with alcohol, and that hospitals generally charged patients for the use of electricity for a medical examination.
HK Yoon, a former North Korean doctor who fled the country in the mid-2010s, said her mid-level hospital in the northeast had no ambulance, no oxygen concentrator and only three four-bed emergency room. She said she shared surgical equipment with other doctors and her monthly salary was equivalent to 800 grams (1.76 pounds) of rice.
“I feel sick to my stomach when I remember the lack of surgical equipment,” said Yoon, who requested that his first name be identified only by initials due to security concerns over relatives in North Korea. “When my patients were in critical condition, I wanted to perform surgeries quickly. But I couldn’t because the surgical equipment was being used by someone else, and I was worried about how quickly I could sterilize it and use it.
Some experts have previously predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak could have dire consequences in North Korea, as most of its 26 million people are unvaccinated and around 40% of its population is undernourished. Now they are speculating that North Korea is likely underreporting its death toll to avoid political damage to Kim Jong Un.
Lee, the former North Korean medical student, said residents of Hyesan do not go to hospitals unless they are extremely sick.
“When they are moderately ill, they simply receive acupuncture or Koryo herbal medicine. They trust Koryo medicine, but they also don’t make a lot of money, and Koryo medicine is cheaper than Western medicine,” Lee said.