North Korea’s health system would be the envy of many developing countries because of the abundance of medical staff that it has available, the head of the World Health Organization said on Friday.
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, speaking a day after returning from a 2-1/2 day visit to the reclusive country, said malnutrition was a problem in North Korea but she had not seen any obvious signs of it in the capital Pyongyang.
North Korea — which does not allow its citizens to leave the country — has no shortage of doctors and nurses, in contrast to other developing countries where skilled healthcare workers often emigrate, she said.
This allows North Korea to provide comprehensive healthcare, with one “household doctor” looking after every 130 families, said the head of the United Nations health agency, praising North Korea’s immunization coverage and mother and child care.
“They have something which most other developing countries would envy,” Chan told a news conference, noting that her visit was a rare sign of the communist state’s willingness to cooperate with outside agencies.
Chan’s comments marked a significant change from the assessment of her predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who said in 2001 that North Korea’s health system was near collapse.
Chan, who acknowledged that countries that she visits always try to look good while pointing to where they need help, met a series of North Korean officials, visited several hospitals, and also talked to Pyongyang-based diplomats, United Nations officials and representatives of the Red Cross.
The authorities acknowledge there is a problem with malnutrition, she said, but things have become better since famine in the 1990s and a series of natural disasters in 2001.
“Nutrition is an area that the government has to pay attention (to) and especially for pregnant women and for young children,” Chan said.
NO SIGNS OF OBESITY
Chan spent most of her brief visit in Pyongyang, and she said that from what she had seen there most people had the same height and weight as Asians in other countries, while there were no signs of the obesity emerging in some parts of Asia.
But she said conditions could be different in the countryside.
News reports said earlier this year that North Koreans were starving to death and unrest was growing as last year’s currency revaluation caused prices to soar.
Chan, who described her visit as “technical and professional” — in other words avoiding politics — said the North Korean government’s readiness to work with international agencies, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, was encouraging.
The Global Fund requires countries it works with to provide sound data, account for resources contributed and allow access by officials, she noted.
“I can confirm that at least in the area of health the government is receptive to engagement with international partners,” she said.
“They are receptive to requests for increasing transparency — have a better quality data — and being held accountable for the resources flowing into the country to improve health.”
North Korea, whose human rights record has been strongly condemned by U.N. experts, is refusing to return to six-party talks about its nuclear program, which has led to U.N. sanctions being imposed after a nuclear test in May last year.
Tension is increasing with South Korea, with which the North fought a war in 1950-53, after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last month for which Seoul increasingly suspects Pyongyang.
But Chan praised a joint project between North and South Korea to improve women’s and children’s health, which she said was promoting dialogue and trust between the two rivals.
Last month, the WHO said North Korea has reduced deaths from surgery and among women in childbirth under the South Korea-funded program.
The Wall Street Journal calls out Ms. Chan:
Greetings, comrades. World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan has returned from Pyongyang with wonderful news. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is making great strides in health care, with one “household doctor” for every 130 households. Thanks to on-the-spot guidance from Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, North Korean doctors selflessly choose not to emigrate and have even conquered the decadent West’s problem of obesity!
All right, we exaggerate. But only the part about the Dear Leader. Ms. Chan’s surreal statements last Friday, as reported by several wire services, really did include praise for North Korean health care and the lack of obesity. “They have something which most other developing countries would envy,” the global health administrator gushed. In her guided tours, she saw few signs of malnutrition, and the people in Pyongyang were the same height and weight as other Asians.
That’s hardly consistent with the reports of other visitors, or the accounts of North Koreans fleeing starvation—a trend on the upswing again after a poor harvest and harsh winter. Even Ms. Chan’s predecessor described the North’s health-care system as near collapse in 2001, and since then the North has continued to depend on foreign aid to feed one-third of its population. As for the abundance of doctors, the North’s declaration on the WHO website ought to arouse suspicion: “During the period 2001-2003, the number of doctors was increased by 104 percent, the nurses 125 percent and the midwives 107 percent.”
It appears Ms. Chan is either winking at the reality to maintain contact with the North or she allowed herself to be fooled. Her own organization’s doctors have described appalling conditions in North Korean hospitals, such as the lack of running water and electricity.
But then this is nothing new for the WHO. In the 1970s, the United Nations agency promoted Mao Zedong’s vision of “barefoot doctors” to serve the rural poor—even as China’s health-care system was collapsing, along with the rest of society, under the strain of the Cultural Revolution. Today the WHO has become a cheerleader for Cuban health care. As long as a totalitarian state gives plenty of poorly trained people the title of doctor, fudges its health statistics and takes visiting officials on tours of Potemkin hospitals, the U.N. seems happy to give its seal of approval.
Hat tip to a reader.
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North Korea has plenty of doctors: WHO